Silver Jews - American Water

Silver Jews - American Water

A retrospective review of one of New York's greatest albums

It always seemed strange to me that a band capable of capturing such vast rural space in its records would hail from New York City. But as middle American as Silver Jews might sound, they wrote and recorded in the thick of the boroughs. You wouldn't guess it from a first listen, but the crown jewel of their catalog, American Water, was recorded at The Rare Book Room in Brooklyn. It's no city LP; it's the sort of thing you throw on the car stereo while you're wheeling hundreds of miles under your tires at a time. Every song paints wide, dry landscapes, poeticizing on journeys well traveled. Maybe those endless highways are indeed where helmsman David Berman first conjured up the seeds for the record. Maybe he simply saw fit for it to flower later in the creative hive of New York. Either way, it's an album too big to be constrained to one location. It's about New York and Los Angeles and every possible path between them, all at once.

The third Silver Jews full-length, American Water entertains visions of petty crime and electric chairs, of endless highways and small town bars, of the perpetual intersections of the mundane and the sublime. It's littered with the sort of aphorisms that are at once blithely conversational and disarmingly profound (Berman's mostly a poet, after all). It begins with one of the best and strangest lines ever sung: "In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection." Listening to the record, whether for the first time or the fiftieth, feels like gleaning wisdom from some ageless stranger. Both warm and cryptic, it leaves you with truisms that you'll never quite be able to unravel fully. 

Berman slings his vocals over playful guitars so casually he might make you wonder if he's kidding. Fans of the Grateful Dead will feel right at home in Water's laid back atmosphere, but Berman isn't simply embracing a stress-free osmosis into the world as it is. He's using the same roots to focus on something altogether more transcendental. He holds it back, more or less, until the last song, when he finally lets the record float free. "I'm going to shine out in the wild silence," he sings in a last release from the sub-dermal tension of the previous forty minutes. Emerging from the strange normalities of everyday America comes a staggering declaration of the intent to surpass it all, to shine out and rise up and be better. It's so pure a gesture that it justifies the occasionally surreal Americana twang of the rest of the record. There aren't a lot of albums that I'd call perfect, but American Water is without a doubt one of them.