David Berman, the singer-songwriter best known for leading the long-running, critically acclaimed indie band Silver Jews, died Wednesday at the age of 52. Drag City, the Chicago record label that released all of the group’s albums dating back to 1994’s Starlite Walker, confirmed the musician’s death. The cause of death was suicide, per the New York City medical examiner (via the New York Times).
“We couldn’t be more sorry to tell you this. David Berman passed away earlier today,” the label wrote in a statement. “A great friend and one of the most inspiring individuals we’ve ever known is gone. Rest easy, David.”
Berman formed Silver Jews in 1989 with Stephen Malkmus and another future Pavement member, Bob Nastanovich. While the group contained a perpetually rotating cast of musicians, Berman remained at the center throughout their entire run. Starting with Starlite Walker, the group released six acclaimed albums, including 1996’s The Natural Bridge, 2001’s Bright Flight, and 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers. The band released their last album, 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, before Berman retired from making music. Of 1998’s American Water, Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield wrote, “It’s torture to pick just one highlight from such a flawless album.”
For much of his career, the reclusive, enigmatic Berman didn’t do interviews or tour. However, in 2004, newly sober after battling drug addiction, he decided to hit the road in support of 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers. He toured again following the release of 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. His depression, which he referred to as “treatment-resistant depression” per The Ringer, had also led to a suicide attempt.
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“I guess I am moving over to another category. Screenwriting or Muckraking,” Berman wrote on Drag City’s message board before his final Silver Jews show in 2009. “I’ve got to move on. Can’t be like all the careerists doncha know. I’m forty two and I know what to do. I’m a writer, see? … I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to [R.E.M.’s] ‘Shiny Happy People.'”
Berman also revealed “my gravest secret. Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction”: His father, former lobbyist Richard Berman. The two had been estranged for years over the elder’s right-wing ties and, as The Guardian put it, “campaigns against animal rights, trade unions and … anti-drink-driving groups.” “A couple of years ago I demanded he stop his work. Close down his company or I would sever our relationship. He refused. He has just gotten worse. More evil. More powerful,” Berman wrote.
“My heart was constantly on fire for justice. I could find no relief,” he added. “This winter, I decided that the SJs were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused. To you and everyone you know … Previously I thought, through songs and poems and drawings, I could find and build a refuge away from his world. But there is the matter of Justice. And I’ll tell you it’s not just a metaphor. The desire for it actually burns. It hurts. There needs to be something more. I’ll see what that might be.”
Berman returned to music in 2018 to co-produce avant-garde musician Yonatan Gat’s album Universalists before releasing “All My Happiness Is Gone,” the first single as Purple Mountains released in May. A full-length Purple Mountains LP, his first album in 11 years, was released in July. “What follows is a uniquely grizzly breakup album, depressed but resiliently clinging to a desire to see what possibilities might lurk past the next heartache,” wrote Rolling Stone‘s Jon Dolan. “It’s emotionally bare-knuckled.” His North American tour in support of Purple Mountains was scheduled to begin this weekend.
“This is terrible news. As a poet and songwriter and fellow UMASS alum, I couldn’t have respected him more,” wrote Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz. “What a loss of a tremendous talent.”
A cult hero due to his poetic lyrics and droll delivery, Berman was also a published author, releasing his first collection of poetry, Actual Air, in 1999. “If I were asked to name a poetry book with a perfect opening, David Berman‘s ‘Actual Air’ would be the first one that comes to mind,” wrote Dupuis. “I’m always thinking about [the] poem ‘Snow.'”
“I could sit here all day and quote memorable David Berman couplets and never grow tired,” added the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle on Twitter. “He had no competition. He was the competition … Of, loosely, my generation of songwriters, the best of us. This loss is devastating. Rest easy, fellow traveler.”
Silver Jews – “Random Rules”
Silver Jews – “Wild Kindness”
Purple Mountains – “All My Happiness Is Gone”