For this edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, Associate Editor Sasha Geffen and Senior Staff Writer Steven Arroyo revisit American Water, the Silver Jews’ third studio album which turned 15 years old this year. To celebrate, Sasha and Steven hone in on the musical bond between David Berman and Stephen Malkmus, in addition to explaining why randomness rules.
Steven Arroyo (SA): I got really into Pavement when I was 19 and listened to them nonstop for two or three years. I heard about Silver Jews and realized that American Water was their big, hallmark album. I know Pavement back and forth, but not the Silver Jews — pretty much just this album. I played it a fair amount three or four years ago, when I was just finding out about them, and then I didn’t play it at all. I don’t know what happened. I went back to Pavement all the time, but I never really went back to this album until now.
Sasha Geffen (SG): I had a similar lull with it. I discovered it and then put it away for years, and stumbled back onto it by accident in college. I think most people probably get to the Silver Jews through Pavement, but I found this album first in high school, and I played it once or twice and then forgot about it. I would do this thing where, if I really liked a song, I would mark it on iTunes, and I only marked “Smith and Jones Forever”. I was like, “okay, this is the only good song on the album. I can put this away now.” That was my first impression.
SA: Interesting. This album before Pavement?
SA: And “Smith and Jones” was your song from this one?
SG: Yeah. It still kind of is. I knew “Cut Your Hair”.
SA: Yeah, that’s the Pavement song.
SG: But I didn’t get into American Water until I was in college and studying poetry. I think that’s what did it for me. It’s really clear to me now that David Berman is a poet from his lyrics. There are so many good one-liners on this record. I feel like they’re very tattoo-able. That’s kind of a cliché, but I could see people walking around with these lyrics on their bodies.
SA: There’s really a million on this one. That’s a good way to put it.
SG: It’s half the sort of stuff that you would get tattooed and half the stuff that you would hear in therapy. He has that line in “Buckingham Rabbit” about drunks staying up and talking to the “honky-tonk psychiatrist.” I wonder if that’s how he sees himself.
SA: That song “People”, that’s packed with some of the best one-liners of the whole album.
SG: That’s the one with “you can’t change the feeling but you can change the feeling about the feeling.”
SA: That’s it. Malkmus and Berman are harmonizing, and they kind of ramble for eight bars. The harmony is just so good. I think that song is so quintessentially them.
SG: I love that bass line.
SA: It’s super apathetic, super laid-back. It sounds like this Pavement song “Blue Hawaiian”. In fact, it’s almost identical. It’s not a ripoff; they’re cut from the same cloth. They both do a talk-sing thing, and it’s a similar bass line. Same exact tempo, same exact feel, super apathetic. When Berman sings, he sounds like he could not give two shits about anything.
SG: Slacker rock.
SA: Right. But, on this album specifically, and this is where it’s way different from Pavement, his lyrics are not apathetic at all. His lyrics are really, really real. Malkmus rarely got like that. His stuff was a lot of fun. Occasionally he’d write a great one-liner that would hit really hard, but it would never be so directly self-reflective.
SG: I feel like the lyrics were never the centerpiece for Pavement.
SA: Because Pavement did a thing where the words were total nonsense most of the time. But Berman, he seems to put more thought into every single word. When I came back to American Water, I realized it was heavy shit. When I first listened to it, I was like, “oh, it’s kind of like another Pavement album. He sounds like he just woke up, doesn’t give a shit, doesn’t care about how his voice sounds.” Because I wasn’t listening too closely, I didn’t understand why everyone thought this was the Silver Jews album. Why this was just as good as any Pavement album. I didn’t think it was. “People” might be my favorite song. It’s got this one line, “People ask people to watch their scotch/ People send people up to the moon/ When they return, well, there isn’t much/ People be careful not to crest too soon.” That’s a tattooer, right there.
SG: Absolutely. I read an interview with Berman where he talks about his Jewish faith and how he’s always trying to get at the holy in the mundane. I think that ties into how he has this casual, laconic delivery, but the lyrics address deep themes. He’s doing all this eloquent wordplay, but he’s shedding it like it’s nothing. It makes it stick so much more. You can miss the lyrics on first listen because they don’t sound like they’re supposed to be important, and then they creep into your brain and work on you later on. The songs on this album don’t get stuck in my head so much as the language gets stuck in my head. I’ll go over a line over and over again, and it won’t leave me for a while. It’s not because of the melody necessarily; it’s just because the words are working on me.
SA: I think that’s a huge part of both something that Berman and Malkmus do so much better than anyone else. It’s also hard to define. I remember when I was trying to explain to people why Pavement or Silver Jews are so great. It’s tough to do. “It’s awesome, they don’t give a shit about anything, they sound like they just woke up, everything’s loose, nothing’s played tightly, they screw up their parts.” And people are like, “What’s so great about that?”
SG: You kind of have to sit with it for a while.
SA: When you deliver a line that’s real and the language is great and you’re not forcing it into this big, grand statement, that’s when it really hits harder. Because your guard’s down.
SG: They make you work for it. I like that. I like being given that much credit as a listener. I don’t really like being spoon-fed my meaning. With an album like this, you get more the more you listen to it. I love Berman when he adopts that lyrical storytelling mode. I think that’s why I was attracted to “Smith and Jones”, because he’s not speaking much in the first or second person. He’s tracing a story. You get these weird images that are at the edges of something very American. It touches on poverty, and crime, and execution, but there’s never anything concrete. You’re left to wonder, who are these characters? What have they done that’s so bad? You get the sense that they’re almost 20th century cowboys, but there’s never anything grounded about it. It’s just these small, scattered images. But, then you get to that climax, “When they turn on the chair/ Something’s added to the air forever,” and it’s like, “oh, crap.” It’s finding the soul of people in everyday objects. In trash. Broken stuff getting cold when the sun goes down in the ghetto. That’s such a human image.
SA: He knows that if someone’s really listening, they’re going to have all this to discover. If they pass it off instantly, it’s just random junk, a word collage. I like that he doesn’t feel pressured to fit his best words into his best songs. Sometimes he’ll come up with an okay arrangement or harmony, but it’ll have the best lyrics, or vice versa. I think that the realest song in here is that first song, “Random Rules”. It’s got that line, “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” which I thought was stupid the first time I heard it. Thinking about it now, I think it’s a super self-aware line. I think what he’s getting at is, he and Stephen Malkmus, they hold down this identity of being cool because of how aloof they are all the time. Because they’re slackers. Because they seem like they don’t give a shit. They were cool people their whole lives. They’re not Rivers Cuomo. They’ve long been admired for being both great writers and attractive. I think he’s addressing this in the first song because he really kind of hates himself for it. Here’s this guy who says, “I was ‘screwing my way across Europe,’ I was having random European sex, I was the man.” When you grow up that way, and you don’t really care that much, and you are admired for your coolness, it doesn’t give you answers at all. It can ruin you.
I remember the first time I heard that song, I was like, “okay, it’s another Pavement song; it’s pretty laid back, it’s mellow. It’s got that sad trumpet line.” But, at the end, this girl leaves him, and there’s that line, “I have to ask you about that tan line on your ring finger.” He’s poking directly at a huge insecurity of hers. Everything about it sounds so cool, but now I realize what he’s getting at, which is something that Malkmus pretty much never did with Pavement. It’s really sad and pathetic. That’s what it is. It’s a really, really sad and pathetic song that sounds really, really cool. When I was listening to this, I thought a lot about LCD’s “Losing My Edge” and the new Phosphorescent album, Muchacho. Both tackle that same contrast: so experienced-sounding, wise-sounding, cool-sounding on the surface, but ultimately pathetic, and self-sabotaging, and lonely. I don’t know if you know this, but I read that in 2003 David Berman tried to kill himself.
SG: Oh, wow.
SA: Yeah. It was 2003, five years after this album. He tried to overdose on crack and Xanax. He checked into the hotel where Al Gore waited out the results of the election in 2000. He was wearing his best suit, and he goes in, and he says, “Give me the Al Gore suite.” And they gave him the Al Gore suite, and he’s wearing his best suit, and he tries to overdose on crack and Xanax. Even that’s this Richie Tenenbaum cool guy thing.
SG: Oh, totally. It’s so cinematic.
SA: Of course. He lives cool and he dies cool, in his best suit. “Give me the Al Gore suite.” But now I listen to “Random Rules”, and I know he’s talking about how all this shit is poisonous.
SG: I always thought of “hospitalized for approaching perfection” as a reference to a substance overdose.
SA: I think it fits. I think the drugs can go hand in hand with life highs. Drifting around Europe having random Europe sex and random Europe drugs.
SG: “Europe sex and Europe drugs.”
SA: Exactly. He’s just living that life. A lot of his listeners are like, “Oh man, I’d like to be David Berman, that would be so awesome, this guy’s the coolest,” and it’s the opposite of that. That’s what hit hardest when I was revisiting this album.
SG: That’s so interesting because I never really thought of him that way. I always envisioned him as this aloof poet who had all this wisdom building inside of him. I never felt that I wanted to be him. I mean, I’d love to be able to write like that. I guess the image never really tied into it for me, and maybe that’s because I never researched it. I’m sure you’re right. When he was onstage he was probably this guy everyone was looking up to, like, “Oh my God, I wish I could be you.” I guess it’s weird to come to this album so far detached from that, after he’s matured and severed himself from all of that. He seems pretty reclusive now.
SA: He is, yeah. The other thing I like about that song is the title, because you hear “Random Rules” and you think rules as a noun, like rules that are random, but the way he delivers it, it’s a verb. Randomness rules. That might as well be a motto for Stephen Malkmus or David Berman. It’s a powerful line. I think part of being a really good writer is understanding absurdness, and they sometimes worship it maybe a little too hard.
SG: There’s a helplessness to it. I think this record is about coming to stop fighting that, to accept that the world’s a lot bigger than you are, and there’s not a lot you can do to influence it. I feel like it’s a very cathartic record by the end. “Wild Kindness” is I think my favorite song on the record. It feels like all the insecurities and tensions that have been filtering in and out of the record are finally resolved. He’s laying out these philosophical nags at the back of his head, and then he’s like, “I’m going to try to be the best that I can”; “Shine out in the wild silence.” Yeah, it’s chaos. Human life is chaotic, and nothing really goes as planned.
SA: Random rules.
SG: Random rules, but you do your best to be good and be kind. It’s so funny, because I hate the second-to-last song: “Honk If You’re Lonely Tonight”.
SA: It’s a skipper.
SG: It’s a skipper, but recently I’ve become so grateful for it.
SG: Because you have “Buckingham Rabbit”, the third-to-last song, and then “Wild Kindness”. But “Buckingham Rabbit” and “Wild Kindness” are both so cathartic and so complete that I feel like you need that little burst of annoying Americana in the middle to break it up. It sheds some of the extra weight, and then you can slide right into “Wild Kindness”, which is just perfect. It’s this perfect, grand resolution, and it doesn’t feel contrived. It doesn’t feel forced. I think that’s such a genius choice, even though I hate that song.
SA: I’m glad you had thoughts about those because they didn’t stick with me as much. If you have any more thoughts on the last few tracks, that’s probably a good place to wrap it up.
SG: Well, I’m glad we’re doing this now because the last track has that line, “The year ends in the next room,” and then, “Instead of time, there will be lateness,” which I like listening to at the end of the year.
SA: That’s a tattooer.
SG: That’s a tattooer, yeah. I like the idea of being removed from time. That time is something that only happens because it’s shared. “The year ends in the next room.” I feel like he’s outside a New Year’s party, and he’s drunk, and curled up, and miserable, and he hears cheering, like, “yay, the year’s over,” but he’s apart from it, so it’s still not over for him. Time only happens if you’re participating in the ritual. He’s still in ’97 because he hasn’t gone out into the room where it’s now ’98. I love that.