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Here Comes Sartre Claus


I've never been the type to find something to get depressed about within truly uplifting content. For example, I've always become secretly contemptuous whenever Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" comes on and some groaner starts wailing about what a depressing song it is. Sure, Midnight Cowboy is a dispiriting film, and it's difficult to separate the song from the soundtrack. But lyrically--however ironic the film's course makes it seem--the song remains, at its heart, a gorgeous, hopeful promise of brighter places. I experience the same uppity reaction when wistful artists such as Simon Joyner, Rock*A*Teens, the New Year, and Silver Jews are, in my opinion, wrongly referred to as bleak.

Now, more than ever, what we all need is a promise of brighter places. A promise to get away. An opportunity to see things happen in states we've never been to. Transportation. Right now, though, most of us are apprehensive about travel, and whether it's because we're scared shitless or just low on cash, a lot of us don't have plans to go anywhere for a good long while.

Which is what makes an album like the Silver Jews' Bright Flight the perfect gift for someone who needs to be transported without leaving the confines of home. Any Silver Jews record is fraught with picturesque visions, set forth by lead band member David Berman, whose crooked prose and wandering melodies read like vivid chalk paintings scratched on a sidewalk by a storyteller who's mastered the art of quick, inspired illustration.

Like snapshots of a trip, Berman's deeply Southern lyrics catch the nearly missed poignancy in a simple rhyme such as "Marry me, leave Kentucky and come to Tennessee/'Cause you're the only ten I see." It's the earlier, off-hand revelation that her doorbell "plays a bar of Stephen Foster" that unfurls a lifetime of intimate details, and the listener becomes an emotional patron of this imaginary couple set on moving ahead.

In "Room Games and Diamond Rain," Berman's got you drinking wine in the afternoon shade, imagining a freight train that rattles a chandelier, and taking a ride in the dirt. If that's too mundane, a moment later he's got you thinking about plug-in reindeer whose cords can't stretch far enough to fly. Whimsical sadness, mixing with the wine and the shade and the dirt, transports the listener to the kind of escape reality can't allow. Horses' legs become brown shotguns, and countrysides have trapdoors where you can disappear among giant evergreens. Suddenly a January trip to Mexico seems shallow and boring.

Berman is also an acclaimed poet, whose book Actual Air reads like a novel written in two-sentence paragraphs. His observations are searing and economical, poignant, and, more often than not, hilarious. An on-duty museum guard muses, "No one gets hungry at the sight of a lush cornfield or a herd of cattle. It's enough to tell you that we're full of education, not awareness." Again, Berman is offering a windshield view of the countryside, as seen through the eyes of a character we'd never have a chance of knowing except through a storyteller's proxy.

Silver Jews began in 1989 when Berman, Stephen Malkmus, and Bob Nastanovich were living in New York after studying at the University of Virginia. Concurrent with Pavement, Silver Jews were often thought of as a Malkmus side project, but Berman's talents led the band. After Chicago's Drag City label released two super lo-fi EPs, Berman returned to college and studied writing, only to rejoin Malkmus and Nastanovich in 1994 on Starlite Walker. The following album, The Natural Bridge, was the one on which Berman's stark songwriting and streamlined musicianship came to the fore. Those abilities remained strong on 1998's American Water, the album on which the singer was reunited once again with Malkmus.

Bright Flight is Berman's purest testament to his singular talent. The songs within are devastating and reviving in their ability to transcend time and place. The stories told and the places visited are rich with radiant imagery--not always happy, but encouraging in their pure, honest existence. "One day they were cutting flowers for something to do/On the band of the road 'neath the cottonwoods/He turned to her to ask if she'd marry him/When a runaway truck hit him where he stood." The guy lives, she marries someone else, and Berman sings, "I'm just rememberin', I'm just rememberin'." And, like we were there, we'll remember it too.