The Silver Jews: Random Rules
ne time I was listening to David Bowie’s Hunky Dory with my brother and as “Eight Line Poem” was playing he commented on how strange the lyrics were. Now I’m certain I’ve listened to Hunky Dory over 200 times, and my brother’s remark caused me to realize that I didn’t have the slightest clue as to what the words of “Eight Line Poem” were. My point is that I usually view lyrics, even on albums I truly love, like the Denver Broncos view Jake Plummer—I’d prefer them to just lay low and not screw things up rather than try to carry the load.
So it should come as no surprise that I’m one of those people who got into the Silver Jews by way of Steven Malkmus’s involvement instead of being an avid reader of David Berman’s poetry. I purchased American Water first, and while Malkmus certainly holds up his end of the bargain (especially on “Night Society”), it was, to my then-surprise, Berman’s lyrics that kept me coming back for repeated listens.
Any number of Berman’s lines or songs could be cited as fan favorites, but to me, every aspect of “Random Rules,” American Water’s opening track, represents the best of the Silver Jews. I’ve actually seen the song’s first line (“In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”) scrawled inside a bathroom stall once, which is stunning given that Berman begins the second verse by plainly stating, “I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men’s room walls.” Did I sit on the very toilet that inspired Berman to write his finest song?
And what I said about picking favorites from the Silver Jews’ songbook is just as applicable to “Random Rules” itself—almost every line would be eligible for best-loved status. Personally, the choice is obvious. The final two lines of the third verse (“So if you don’t want me, I promise not to linger / But before you go I gotta ask you, dear, about that tanline on your ring finger”) comes at the song’s emotional peak, and is directly followed by my favorite musical aspect of the song—the soft yet piercing trumpet that transitions the verses to the chorus-like moments.
No one would ever call David Berman a great singer. He seems to know that singing in a monotone voice gives his lyrics the best possible forum from which to deliver their messages. But at the climax of “Random Rules” he raises his tone very subtly to match his words’ gravity, and doing so serves as the confirmatory stamp of the song’s greatness—greatness that’s impossible even for lyrically oblivious listeners like myself to miss.
By: Ross McGowan
Published on: 2005-10-19