Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

There is no way David Berman could have known the path he would set himself on in merely naming his band. As a young man at the University of Virginia, Berman began writing his songs: soliloquies left on friends’ answering machines, songs steeped in abstruse histories and personal revelations. Naming his band the Silver Jews, a term used to describe blonde-haired Jews, Berman is now forced, after almost two decades, several albums, crippling addictions, a non-practicing Catholic wife and—possibly most importantly—a profound religious awakening, to admit that there might have been some divine plan in his choice of band name.

“I’ve had to accept the idea that destiny might be true in order to live out my life. I made certain decisions to do so,” says Berman. “I often ask myself why I wound up in this band called the Silver Jews.” There is a hint of concession in his voice rather than wonderment, an admission rather than the tidy serendipity people usually use to describe “their destiny.” This is because where others have faith in destiny, Berman has cast his lot with Judaism.

The Silver Jews’ latest album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is steeped in the religious and historical texts Berman spends hours each day studying. Album opener “What Is Not But Could Be If” is based on a Yiddish proverb, and a recording of a rousing Theodore Roosevelt speech plays prior to “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat,” Berman’s view of Generations X and Y through a “Greatest Generation” lens. “The reason that’s there in the center of the album, and why I’m making fun of little indie rock bands with handsome boys in them, is to me, young people today are set up in parallel historical situations. It’s a jab, not at the ‘handsome grandsons,’ [but] at the culture industry which is making it harder for bands to compete without every single check mark.”

The perspective of “Strange Victory” is a departure for Berman, whose lyrics often feature characters starring in tales of humor and absurdity. A bluegrass drummer named Aloysius, a bereft jukebox and a vocal martyr in the vegan press are all travelers in Berman’s southern-fried Canterbury Tales. “The characters are caught up in little histories,” he explains. “They’re fools in heroes’ places [but] there’s no condemnation.” This condemnation is absent because no matter the absurdity of the character, Berman in some way identifies. The album’s most autobiographical song is also its best; “Party Barge” is a duet between Berman and his wife, Cassie. As Berman describes his life while still immersed in drugs as a party barge, Cassie’s voice breaks the line like a clarion call, offering to send a St. Bernard. “That was me, ten years ago. It’s so obvious—I was always running around at the bars, and she always wanted to know where I was.”

Berman’s identification with Judaism is stronger than the happenstance of his band name suggests. For a former addict and someone who, with regard to his music career, feels he’s never quite received the accolades deserved, there is a type of survivor’s camaraderie present. The two tenets central to Berman’s faith are his acceptance of not being recognized as Jewish by the state of Israel (Berman’s mother converted to Judaism but did not have an Orthodox conversion) and his willingness to dedicate his life to the Jewish God, regardless. “I’m going to love the Jewish God and follow the Jewish God, even without club membership,” Berman states. “I feel it’s a new kind of gift to God.” Berman feels similarly about the Silver Jews: “There’s always a certain amount of respect given to the Silver Jews, but it’s just enough to keep me working.”

“Neither [music critic] Greil Marcus or the state of Israel is going to acknowledge me in the next couple of years. I’m never going to be a part of the Great Singers Club or the Pure Jews Club. And those are the two things that I’m interested in,” Berman says, a bit sadly. He brightens then, picking up the plot. “The pain is all part of my chance for happiness. If I lose touch with that, then I’m lost.”

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