Just as the Band is Striking Up
Few lyricists' songwords could stand up to the blank scrutiny of ink-on-page, printed in the cold light of black-and-white far away from the safety of sentimental chord-changes and musical meter. David Berman's could. The long-running frontman of part-time rockband the Silver Jews —a project notable for the intermittent involvement of Stephen Malkmus— writes some of the sharpest, most ridiculous lyrics in popular music.
If Berman wished, a collection of his song lyrics could be bundled up and bound into a book, lines like "On the last day of your life/ Don't forget to die" and "Fast cars, fine ass/ These things will pass/ And it won't get more profound" and "Since her dad, a local barber, had been beaten to death/ She had become a vocal martyr in the vegan press" given pride of poetic place in a tome of their own.
Souvenirs, Novelties, Party Tricks...
Yet Berman is no mere lyricist. The vocalist is, in fact, a poet. And Actual Air shows him to be an incredibly accomplished one. A collection of Berman's poetry, it refines and defines his distinctive voice; a blunt, clipped form of deadpan that still has the capacity to quickly pirouette into the unexpected. Berman has described the differences of each written medium thusly: "Songwriting is, much of the time, like addressing a crowd. Writing poetry is like passing a note inside that crowd." And, sure enough, there's a pressed, urgent, clammy intimacy to his poetry.
Like his rock'n'roll persona, Berman's poetic meter has an impossibly droll bent; casually tossing off lines like "Souvenirs only remind you of buying them." A poem entitled "Self Portrait At 28" has the gall to commence: "I know it's a bad title/ but I'm giving it to myself as a gift."
Yet Berman isn't just some clown, one step removed from a limerick hack, nor is he some arch-ironist making syntactical gags as he goes. His imagery often functions at a heightened level of poeticism, painting portraits in words via visions of the world that never submit to written cliché; lines like "when dice rolled out of his hand/ like paratroopers out of a thundercloud" rich, thick, and evocative.
Our Minds Can Dream Like Soda Machines
For those needing to revel in Berman's rock'n'roll dayjob, there's some tie-in to the world of music-makery lurking in the tastefully-spare pages of Actual Air. "Cassette County," with its title evoking Silver Jews early lo-fi days, finds Berman repeating an almost-refrain of "anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship" that speaks of Berman's approach to the stage.
And then there's Governors on Sominex, whose words "P.K. was in the precinct house, using his one phone call to dedicate a song to Tammy, for she was the light by which he traveled into this and that" served as the basis for a singalong pop-song by suave Swedish crooner Jens Lekman (named "You Are the Light").
But, be warned, to reduce this just to its rock-n-roll connections is to do something beyond merely a disservice. Actual Air is the work of an evocative wordsmith, whittling his interpretations of the new-millennial middle American landscape down into oddly-phrased, richly-conveyed fragments, whose supposed simplicities court comedy and tragedy simultaneously. With every deft step through he takes through the minefield of modern poetry, Berman leaves us little doubts to his nimble talent.