“Can I listen to the new David Berman song again?”
When I first heard the news of David Berman’s death, my mind jumped back in time to May this year. I’m lounging around the living room of my house in Tokyo with my friend Mariah, who’s on tour in Japan at this time with her band The Male Gaze. David Berman has just released the song All My Happiness is Gone from his new project Purple Mountains, and Mariah wants to listen to it over and over again.
“Sure, if you want, but why do you need to listen to this one song so much?”
“I’m trying to decode its lyrics.”
Mariah, like many people on and around Call And Response Records, is a massive fan of David Berman. When we’re out as a group, little clusters of them geek out in private conversations composed largely of Silver Jews lyrics, used in- or out-of-context, repurposed like memes towards the purposes of the topic at hand. I’m by no means a deep or hardcore fan, and it’s not necessarily an influence that finds its way onto the label’s output in any obvious formal way, but Berman’s music is part of the fabric that binds many of our artists and friends together on a human level. It’s impossible not to feel a share of their sadness at his death, because he is embedded in what makes us us as a group.
Back again in my living room, May 2019.
“What do you mean, ‘decode the lyrics’?”
To me, the broad meaning of All My Happiness is Gone is pretty clear. It’s there in the title and repeated over and over again in the chorus. Mariah gives a kind of vague answer, but the underlying meaning is that she and I listen to music — and lyrics in particular — in different ways.
Obviously, there’s more to the song than just the title, and so I start wondering what it is that she is looking for. What it is that she’s trying to decode. To do this, I pull up a transcript of the lyrics and read them, and of course it’s much more richly layered — not obscure, but sometimes opaque, abstract, fragmentary, but all the while shot through with a tangible sense of melancholy, fear and loss.
It makes me think about how I listen to music.
Living in Japan suits my way of listening to music, I think. It’s a place where most lyrics are foreign sounds that I need to make a conscious effort to translate, but which it’s much easier to simply let fall back into the texture of the music. Even with songs sung in a language I understand instinctively and without need for effort or translation, I rarely consciously engage with the lyrics unless they are either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. That’s not to say I don’t pay attention at all though. Rather, it’s that I let the words find me, often as individual phrases that fade briefly into clarity and then vanish. Music is constantly dragging me away from a place of consciousness and focus and into a liminal space between awareness and dream, so lyrics that demand my attention are often going to be at war with their own music in their fight for control of my mind.
This is probably reflected in the kinds of lyricists I most enjoy — Mark E. Smith, Robert Pollard, Graham Lewis, Laetitia Sadier jump most quickly to mind. Their songs rarely insist on a meaning, or even seek explicitly to communicate one. They’re all lyricists whose talent lies in opaque yet evocative imagery, and an instinctive poetic sense of the power of this word over that to express something intangible through language. David Berman has a similarly deft hand with imagery as well, of course: it’s there on All My Happiness is Gone in phrases like “snowcloud-shadowed interstates” and “the icy bike-chain rain of Portland, Oregon”.
The idea of focusing my will on a single song in a granular way and trying to decode feels in a way like an affront to the way I use and consume music. In order to engage with David Berman’s lyrics in anything like the way Mariah is, I needed to see them written down in front of me — that’s the division of labour between listening and reading in my brain (it's also the reason I never listen to radio, podcasts or voicemails).
That’s not to say Mariah is wrong. That sort of intense focus on a song also includes an insistence on experiencing the music and lyrics together as something indivisible. It’s a very pure way of listening, and in a way it’s one I agree with — after all, it’s where my own habit of listening passively and waiting for the words to find me ends up eventually anyway. Lyrics on paper alone are rarely great poetry: they are meant to be heard aloud, and often it is the singer’s ability to sell a line that completes its meaning. The structure, tempo, time signature, arrangement and production of a song can also help fill out or illuminate the words’ meaning — or undermine them, if that sort of tension is what the artist wants.
The mode of listening to a song over and over again, obsessing over its details, is an old fashioned one in a way. It’s the mode of listening to a 7-inch record, attention rapt and hand always ready to move the stylus back to the start. It’s ironic that the archetypally millennial Mariah is listening to the song in this way, while increasingly middle-aged me struggles to consume a song in a way other than the mode of an Extremely Online Twitter nerd, letting information flow through him passively.
While that’s a neat little ironical flourish, it perhaps also obscures what these two ways of extracting meaning from music are really dealing with, and that’s the problem of music and time.
Music is fundamentally linear. It can underscore meaning or draw connections between different points in the song by repeating lyrical or musical phrases, but these are just mirrors and echoes: they do not fundamentally alter the inexorable passage of time that a song dances you through. Words on a page flatten time. Written in a linear fashion though they may be, we don’t really read them in that way. Our eyes jump back and forth, making and breaking connections between places all over the text, constructing meanings in a nonlinear fashion. Poetry is, in a sense, hypertextual in that words are not only words in themselves but also links to other places. In this sense, Mariah’s repeat listening of the song and my instinct to leap straight to the text are both recognitions of the deficiencies of time in how we decode meaning in music: she by keeping the text pure and whole and simply looping time over and over, immersing herself in the narrative as a function of time; me by detaching lyrics from the music and flattening out time in order to experience their meaning in a blast of interconnected words and images, then recombining with the music and thus restoring them to time.
It feels strange that a line of thought that began with the news of David Berman’s death ended up wrapped up in ideas about the relationship between music and time. A little trite even, like it’s too neat a metaphor. Time is flat, and even if Berman is gone, his music is still here, “hardships like yardsticks” left in the ground. Time is a loop, and the music continues to cycle through, over and over again, accruing new meanings as we experience and share it in new and different contexts. Time is a straight line, and David Berman will never make another album.