Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: 20 Years of American Water

Dirty Shoes (finally) returns as Douglas Martin takes a look at the epochal 1998 indie-rock album.
By    October 23, 2018


Douglas Martin is the trick his mother played on the world.

Chuck Klosterman was wrong about a lot of things, but when he said Stephen Malkmus is overrated as a lyricist and underrated as a guitar player, I felt that. Some very smart people I deeply respect drive themselves to the verge of tearing their hair out trying to parse out his arch stream-of-consciousness, but I greatly prefer his winding, conversational guitar playing. It’s like he’s using the fretboard to tell you a detailed, funny, and sometimes meandering story; like the person who strikes up a conversation with you at the bar clutching a limited press of microfiction.

Other smart people I deeply respect have listened to American Water — the third LP released under the Silver Jews banner — and heretofore strived to be writers at least somewhat like David Berman, and I most certainly include myself in that class. Wistfully melancholic but not corny; observant of the little corners of our memory, where we notice something striking someone else might find either negligible or utterly devastating. Riotously funny in a subtle, stoned kind of way.

These Berman-inspired writers produce work that is largely perceived as more sad than it is funny, but they have a deep understanding that the sadness is what makes it funny.

Somewhere in a parallel universe, the eternally cavalier Malkmus is regarded as one of the coolest sidemen to have ever existed in rock music, shrugging his way to brilliance over the threadbare elegance of Berman’s greatest collection of grievously hysterical slacker-country and slightly rural indie-rock tunes. Malkmus was considered far from a sideman in the Starlite Walker days, and it took an album as great as The Natural Bridge for Berman to pull Silver Jews from the looming shadow of Pavement, by 1996 a generational touchtone.

As a measure of Berman being at the height of his powers as a songwriter, the least interesting songs on American Water (though it’s tough to say any of its songs aren’t compelling) were co-written by Malkmus, the album recorded somewhere between the release of Pavement’s Brighten the Corners and the band’s studio swan song, Terror Twilight. On a purely musical level, they’re interesting enough songs, and it might be unfair (and unfitting) for a song with the slightly manic ramble of “Pan-American Blues” to be shoehorned into what is essentially an album of songs as measured and conversational as the ones here.

“In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” — one of the greatest opening lines of any album ever — kicks off “Random Rules,” country bar ballad par excellence. To single out other lines here would prove an excruciating exercise without picking every single couplet apart (besides, that’s what Genius is for, right?). “Random Rules” is a melange of longing captured in a roadside dive set piece, brimming with imagery and humor and romanticism individual to Berman’s gifts as a lyricist. (Your favorite novelist could only hope to write a line as evocative as, “Before you go, you know I gotta ask you dear about the tan line on your ring finger.”)

Musically, the album works as platonic ideal indie-rock-informed jaunts through woozy 90s guitar-pop (“People”), bar band burners (“Send in the Clouds,” “Smith and Jones Forever”), and the best traditional Silver Jews instrumental jam in “Night Society” (“The Right to Remain Silent,” from The Natural Bridge, is also excellent, but in a very different way.) Throughout the album but especially on songs like “Buckingham Rabbit,” “Like like the the the Death,” and “We Are Real,” Malkmus’ subtly legendary guitar work is worthy of Berman’s praise of him being “the best guitar player in the world” and his ludicrously funny crack, “If I could convince him to just play guitar for me, I’d never kick him out of the band again.”

Is the most pretentious thing for a music critic to do is compare a certain iteration of the form to literature in order to “elevate” it to something more “highbrow” than the societal station where music currently sits? American Water is literary, sure, but it’s not literature; it goes places dogeared paperbacks are easily discarded or served as surfaces for expert joint rollers.

Berman’s words push through the air courtesy of his plaintive and weary baritone, his voice — much derided by people who clearly give more of a shit about singing than what’s being sung — articulating the complexity of a line like “Nobody cares about a dead hooker” like someone trying to convince themselves not to care. Reading his words off the page has its own sort of power, but the stuff Berman writes for the page is very much its own thing. (Shout out to the friends whom I have gifted my copies, plural, of Actual Air because I have a hard time keeping wonderful things I’ve bought for myself.)

There are bagfuls of character notes, insights, impressionistic bummers, and declarative statements just dying to be sung here. Rent money eventually taking the form of Jack Daniels; grass growing in the icebox while the year ends in the next room; musicians playing tambourine for minimum wage; Jesus sitting in a runaway shelter; Coca-Cola bottles being emptied in a kitchen somewhere alongside a dog who doesn’t know his name; children named after kings. “My father came in from wherever he’d been, kicked my shit all over the room.” “When the sun sets on the ghetto, all the broken stuff gets cold.”

“Folks who’ve watched their mother kill an animal know that their home is surrounded by places to go.”

American Water begs exaltation as the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel because of its wandering spirit, its allusions to travelling and travellers dotted across state highway routes and backroads. Smith and Jones hitchhiking eight hours across the sashline of Texas to catch a live execution at midnight; the puppy walking from Kentucky to Eastern Virginia with “seventeen ideas in his head;” Malibu, Kansas City, and South Dakota; assorted jukeboxes, wherever is sunny and 75 degrees at this very moment.

Also unlike that dogeared paperback, American Water came out of the shrinkwrap worn in. Indie-rock, even back in 1998 (but especially now, it feels), has had its margins both stretched and narrowed by the overeducated and perspective malnourished; largely a rest haven for people too smart and too privileged to have a deeply informed handle on what Harry Dean Stanton referred to in Repo Man as “ordinary fucking people.” Berman represents a figure who has lived enough life to articulate it profoundly without having to appear lofty or hardened, or whatever defense mechanism brilliant and sensitive people use to survive the world.

Of course, the story isn’t even close to the end upon the release of this masterpiece. Berman endures several more years of drug and alcohol abuse, survives a harrowing suicide attempt, finds love and gets married, converts to Judaism, waffles on his pledge to never, ever tour, takes a life-changing trip to Jerusalem as a result of that broken promise, and shutters the Silver Jews project definitively.

Over the supervening years, there were reports of a forthcoming memoir, then abandoned. A forthcoming television project about his father, notorious lobbyist/public relations executive Rick Berman — if I had to put it succinctly, the relationship between David and Rick Berman contains weird parallels to that of Raylan and Arlo Givens — then abandoned. A blog which reads like hieroglyphics scrawled along the walls of Berman’s mind. That one comes and goes. There were rumors of new Silver Jews recordings, which still have not surfaced.

But I do believe in MGM endings.

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