Friday, 23 January 2009

RIP Silver Jews

This is going to read like an obituary. It shouldn't. No one has died and the unseemly and unexpected passing of Ron Asheton last week is of far more consequence and I wrote nothing about that (although perhaps because anything else would seem like a tautology after one friend's beautifully succinct appraisal of the man - "never has one person done so much with so little").

I understand this is laced with unnecessary melodrama, but the news today (from the horses mouth via the Drag City forum, cos even cowboys got the Internet) that David Berman and his Silver Jews are stepping down and out of music was a Friday morning body blow I didn't want or need. His reasons were admirable if rather obliquely expressed (what else were you expecting?), citing a desire to concentrate more on 'writing' and end the band before they inadvertently recorded "the reply to Shiny Happy People". That's a flawless argument. Really it is. But I'm going to miss them.

It's a common shibboleth that Silver Jews albums have got progressively worse. They've not. They've just changed focus, influences steeped more in country then indie aesthetic, but remaining consistently affecting and human. I'm going to miss anticipating his next line and never once getting it right. He was - he is - the antithesis of cliche and yes, the greatest lyricist of a generation. There, I've said it. I've made that qualification. If you don't know what I mean, I'm strangely envious. There's a back catalogue I'd love to hear for the first time again. And now there can be no more firsts, at least with his music anyway. What he does next is sure to enthrall me in equal measure (as with his book of poetry, Actual Air), but just like recent albums, it too will be a different experience. Whatever happens, it's likely to be charged with the usual combination of skyscraper intelligence and imperious integrity.

And so music, like football, always manage to throw up strange little ironies. It was only this week that I rediscovered Will Oldham's reinterpretation of Palace Music songs on Greatest Palace Music. Listening inattentively (you know what generation I belong to), i was drawn to something I'd not noticed before; D.C. Berman chiming in on backing vocals on "No More Workhorse Blues". I'm not going to patronise you, but there's something incredibly prescient about my rediscovery of that song. Maybe the recent end to the Jews live show freeze out and the incessant touring and pressures that followed as a result had shifted what was once a love into a chore for Berman? It's not quite been spelt out yet, but in it's own unexpected and possibly inaccurate way, that song explains enough. How typically contrary of the man that it's someone else's words doing the explaining now.

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