Silver Jews – The Annotated Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

Lookout Mountain Lookout Sea cover

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, the newest album from the always-great band Silver Jews isn’t out yet, but I’ve been listening to an advance for a week or so, and really enjoying it. (Of course, I will buy a proper copy on CD, probably the day it’s released.)

There’s something different about this one. Musically, you can kind of tell that it’s a real band rather than just a bunch of friends and pickup musicians. This group has been playing together and it shows.

Lyrically, it strikes me as quite different from David Berman’s earlier work, though I haven’t yet put my finger on exactly what is different about it, other than the two narrative lyrics (“Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” and “San Francisco, BC”) — I don’t think Berman has written real stories into his songs like these before.

Trying to decipher a couple of lyrics I found a site that was already way ahead of me, with transcriptions of all songs on the album. So with thanks and gratitude to The Bat and the Bird, I am copying their transcriptions with a couple of minor changes. I will also be adding annotations as they occur to me.

UPDATE: I just realized Drag City has this whole press section on their website which includes a Lookout Mountain Deluxe Press Kit complete with notes on some of the songs. I was happy to see I’d correctly nailed a few of the references, and pleased to find a couple more that escaped me. In a sense, having all this stuff spelled out takes some of the fun out of it, at least for me. But it’s a nice reference just the same, and there are plenty of stones still left unturned. The site also contains hand-drawn lyrics for each song. I will add links to these below.

So with no further ado:.

1. What is Not But Could Be If [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
2. Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
3. Suffering Jukebox [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
4. My Pillow is the Threshold [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
5. Strange Victory, Strange Defeat [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
6. Open Field [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
7. San Francisco B.C. [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
8. Candy Jail [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
9. Party Barge [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]
10. We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing [lyrics] [hand-drawn lyrics] [thoughts]

1. What is Not But Could Be If

What is not but could be if
What could appear in the morning mist
With all associated risk
What is not but could be if

What was not but could have been
Was my obsession way back when
Now I just remember this
What is not but could be if

What is not but could be if
We could be crossing this abridged abyss
Into beginning

When failure’s got you in its grasp
And you’re reaching for your very last
It’s just beginning

One has lived life carelessly
If he or she has failed to see
That the truth is not alive or dead
The truth is struggling to be said

So how do we get out of this
Family shadows all of this
Through what is not but could be if
With all associated risk

What is not but could be if
We could be crossing this abridged abyss
Into beginning

When failure’s got you in its grasp
And you’re reaching for your very last
It’s just beginning

Thoughts: This is obviously a pretty introspective song, and if I’m correct in reading it as a personal lyric from Berman’s point of view, the 2nd verse suggests a change in philosophy from solipsistic frustration about states of affairs to a detatched awareness of future potential, if. Or maybe even cautious optimism. Human potential? “Be the change you want to see in the world?” It gets a little est/new-agey when I try to dissect it. Berman’s words are far less clichéed, and far more effective, if a tiny bit less willing to quickly reveal themselves.

The Drag City presskit provides this Yiddish proverb:

“Der Emess lebt nit,
der emess shtarbt nit.
Der emess ,atert zich.”
(The truth is not alive.
The truth is not dead.
It struggles.)

What a great proverb. Along with the rest of the song, he seems to be saying that we can bring into being the desired state, or at least we can try (with all associated risk). This I-am-the-mother-of-reality reminds me of the epilogue to Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? from which I will provide a rather extensive quote:

So let us see whether we cannot draw the correct, non-contradictory conclusion from the following two premises:

(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.

(ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.

The only possible inference from these two facts is, I think, that I –- I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt ‘I’ — am the person, if any, who controls the ‘motion of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature.

Within a cultural milieu (Kulturkreis) where certain conceptions (which once had or still have a wider meaning amongst other peoples) have been limited and specialized, it is daring to give to this conclusion the simple wording that it requires. In Christian terminology to say: ‘Hence I am God Almighty’ sounds both blasphemous and lunatic. But please disregard these connotations for the moment and consider whether the above inference is not the closest a biologist can get to proving also their God and immortality at one stroke.

In itself, the insight is not new. The earliest records to my knowledge date back some 2,500 years or more. From the early great Upanishads the recognition ATHMAN = BRAHMAN (the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemous, to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world. The striving of all the scholars of Vedanta was, after having learnt to pronounce with their lips, really to assimilate in their minds this grandest of all thoughts.

Again, the mystics of many centuries, independently, yet in perfect harmony with each other (somewhat like the particles in an ideal gas) have described, each of them, the unique experience of his or her life in terms that can be condensed in the phrase: DEUS FACTUS SUM (I have become God).

This is the first song, and the first one where I see some autobiographical touches, but it won’t be the last.

2. Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer

Aloysius was a bluegrass drummer
He was just a normal kid
Bloomin’, trippin’, flowin’ under
Just as I once did

At a 24hour restaurant
Open to the end of time
He was washing dishes there
When he met Brick Butterfly

She was a no wave singer for a country act
Working outta Region Ten
She was all strung out on hard street fat
But he didn’t know it then

First a look then a spark
Sound of Velcro in the dark
His heart is spinning like a bicycle wheel
She and he laid the stems down flat
In the middle of a field

Brick Butterfly had a history
Of sleeping with the kitchen staff
She was a hardcore gobbler
And a longtime guzzler of hydrogenated crap

Suet, tallow, liquid squeals
Great mounds of plastic lard
That’s what she got the lad to steal
On the night that he got fired

Aloysius woke at five a.m.
The hungry girl was gone
There was blood in the bedding
Forks in the ceiling
And bones all over the lawn

Like any strong young poet would
He packed his bags for Region Ten
I guess now I know him less
Than I ever knew him then
Yes I guess I know him even less
Than I ever knew him then

Thoughts: The first of two “narrative” songs on the album. This one is more obscure than the one that follows. How to read it?

First of all, bluegrass music doesn’t normally have drums, so does “bluegrass” mean that Aloysius is from Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, and Berman’s former home state? Or does it mean something else? Why “Aloysius”? He’s the patron saint of plague victims, including AIDS victims. So? Region Ten seems to be some sort of area around Charlottesville, VA, where Berman also lived. Or at least it’s the name of a social-services agency in the area. One service they provide is substance abuse treatment. And of course Brick Butterfly is an addict who consumes poisons. The juxtaposition of brick & butterfly: something pretty, soft, graceful becomes heavy, hard and dangerous. It’s an obvious leap to assume “hard street fat” is a stand-in for “hard street drugs.”

A bit more of a leap to say that Aloysius is the younger Berman (“Bloomin’, trippin’, flowin’ under / Just as I once did”), and Brick Butterfly represents his addictions. She seduced him, got him “fired,” made a big mess of his life, and the “strong young poet” then split. (And got some help?) The narrator didn’t understand Aloysius (his former self) at the time, and understands him even less now.

Am I taking this too far? Not far enough? I don’t know.

3. Suffering Jukebox

Cranes on the downtown skyline
Is a sight to see for some
It ought to make a few reputations
In the cult of number one

While these seconds turn these minutes
Into hours of the day

While these doubles drive the dollars
and the light of day away

Suffering jukebox
Such a sad machine
You’re all filled up with what other people mean
And they never seem to turn you up loud
Got a lot of chatterboxes in this crowd

Suffering jukebox
In a happy town
You’re over in the corner breakin’ down
They always seem to keep you way down low
The people in this town don’t want to know

Well I guess all that mad misery
Must make it seem true to you
But money lights your world up
You’re trapped what can you do?

You got Tennessee tendencies
And chemical dependencies
You make the same old jokes
And malaprops on cue

Suffering jukebox
Such a sad machine
You’re all filled up with what other people mean
Hardship, damnation and guilt
Make you wonder why you were even built

Suffering jukebox
In a happy town
You’re over in the corner breaking down
They always seem to keep you way down low
The people in this town don’t want to know

Thoughts: The first verse suggests that the singer doesn’t share the prevalent notion of what defines “progress” or “achievement.” I’m having trouble connecting this with the rest of the song. From there we go to fairly standard country music scene: a jukebox in a bar plays sad songs. But this jukebox has been anthropomorphized. It’s playing sad songs that no one’s really listening to and suffering for it. A couple odd things though. “But money lights your world up / You’re trapped what can you do?” — is this connecting back to the first verse about the buildings going up and the cult of number one? And then there’s the “Tennessee tendencies and chemical dependencies.” Sounds like someone we know.

So is this jukebox-as-person, or is it person-as-jukebox? I’d say it’s the latter, and therein lies the genius.

Oh, and I think “malaprop” rhymes with “mop” not “mope” but that’s what creative license is for.

4. My Pillow is the Threshold

I take decaf coffee
Two sugars and one cream
I don’t see the use in staying up just to watch TV

I unplug all the neon
Turn the ringer off the phone
Throw my thoughts like tomahawks
Into this world which I disown

Because the pillow that I dream on
Is the threshold of a kingdom
Is the threshold of a world where I’m with you

It’s a dark and snowy secret
And it has to do with heaven
And what looks like sleep is really hot pursuit

I hold your picture in my mind
It makes me warm when I am cold
Gets me up and it makes me walk
It makes me question what I’m told

Somewhere in a foggy atlas
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
First life takes time then time takes life
Now the next move’s up to me

Because the pillow that I dream on
Leads to some fantastic glory
It’s the threshold of a world I can’t ignore

Like time unspoiled from heaven
Did you find me sleeping in your doorway
Now I’m here for good
I won’t leave you anymore

Thoughts: Someone sings a love song to someone who’s departed? And in the “next move” joins the loved one “for good”? Another suicide song? (cf. “Candy Jail” & Jeremy Blake/Theresa Duncan.) In fact, I kind of think the person dreaming on the pillow may be Blake, in hot pursuit of his lost love Theresa. In the end, he joins her. Berman may have even written the first part while Blake was still alive, and added the “here for good” part at the end, after he too committed suicide. Too literal? I dunno.

Musically, I think this song sounds like it could have been an outtake from The Natural Bridge.

5. Strange Victory, Strange Defeat

Sample from Theodore Roosevelt, Address to Boy’s Progressive League, 1913: “In other words, don’t flinch, don’t foul, and hit the line hard.”

Squirrels imported from Connecticut
Just in time for fall
How much fun is a lot more fun?
Not much fun at all

What’s with all the handsome grandsons
In these rock band magazines?
What have they done with the fat ones?
The bald and the goateed?

Strange victory
Strange victory
Strange victory
Strange defeat

Tale is told of a band of squirrels
Who lived in defiance of defeat
They woke up in a nightmare world
Of craven mediocrity

They said, “We’re coming out of the black patch
We’re coming out of the pocket
We’re calling into question
Such virtue gone to seed

Strange victory
Strange victory
Strange victory
Strange defeat

Strange victory
Strange victory
Strange victory
Strange defeat

Thoughts: The first of two “squirrelly” references. “How much fun is a lot more fun / Not much fun at all” reminds me a bit of a Lou Reed lyric: “What good was cancer in April / Why no good: no good at all” — just the sound of it, not the meaning. I like this song a lot, but I can’t say I understand it, except on a really abstract symbolic level. Are the “band of squirrels / Who lived in defiance of defeat” supposed to be the French resistance or something? Nah. That line of thought seems a bit too literal for this surreal song, and doesn’t hold up anyway. Maybe a rock band that tried to shake things up but whose efforts were co-opted? The “virtue gone to seed” bit is from Emerson and he is talking about fashion as being something that represents success not of an individual, but of an individual’s ancestors. The virtuous one might not look like much in his time, but his descendants will possess “good taste.” A connection to modern popular music is easily drawn. Hope to have some insights down the road. Or not.

6. Open Field

Open field with a window
Open field with a window
Open field with no child
Open field with no child

Open field
Open field

Thoughts: No ideas, though I really like it. Reads like modern poetry and I almost think Berman would have worried about something like this sounding pretentious in his earlier days, but he’s confident enough now in his craft to say, “yeah I am a poet, and some of it may sound arty. So what?” I would like to know what the song means to him. It’s like a little minimalist word-painting

UPDATE: never mind, this is a cover of a Maher Shalal Hash Baz song. Still, I love it.

7. San Francisco B.C.

Old San Francisco, San Francisco B.C.
I lived with my true love and she lived with me
“Romance is the douche of the bourgeoisie
Was the very first thing she imparted to me
We had sarcastic hair
We used lewd pseudonyms
We got a lot of stares on the street back then

Since her dad a local barber had been beaten to death
She had become a vocal martyr in the vegan press
The cops had failed they couldn’t catch a bus
They were looking for a male with a bad haircut
Enter tumbleweed / Exit love
And our affaire d’amour was set on self destruct

She said, “You don’t make enough to provide for me.”
I said, “What about the stuff that we quote-believe?”
She said, “I left that on the sands of history
I found a new man who’ll take care of me
He dresses for success and emergency
And he moves a lot of concrete on the QVC.”

Middle aged and deadly like a cobra in the shade
Sat in the midst of the smoke that he made
His name was Mr. Games and he owned the place
It was a lowly bar and grill in the Lower Haight
He had a jeweler’s hands and a blurry face
He knew I needed a chance so he gave me a break

“If I hire you now can you start today?
I got a high rise job down by the bay.
Just a couple of rocks and some firearms
There’s not many locks and just one alarm
My stepson Gene will pick you up and drive
Try to be his friend: he’s got a friendly side.”

Dollhouse lightning and the next thing I knew
We were back at our point of rendezvous
I was in the possession of burglary tools
Children’s fur coats and diamonds and jewels
Gene was talking ’bout insignificant shit
Just like the crooks in the movies when they do that bit

He said, “The power of metal will never be harnessed.”
I thought the wages of metal should be heavily garnished
We were waiting for his dad to meet us there
Gene took off his hat and I noticed his hair
It was neatly trimmed but a patch was bare
I knew it wasn’t new wave, it was human error

‘fore I knew what I said I said, “killer cut”
I watched him silently puttin’ out a cigarette butt
Then he came at me with some fist cuisine
I had to duck aside and that was bad for Gene
Because when he went by me
He tripped and fell
Through the glass coffee table at the Wong Hotel

Right there and then Mr. Games walked in
With my ex-true love on his gamey limb
So her dad’s killer’s dad was her new beau
And Games had a wife
What do you know
She got real, real quiet
Till we chucked the kid
Then she went her way and I went his

Old San Francisco, San Francisco B.C.

Thoughts: The second narrative song. What a great story, and how out-of-voice for Berman. Lots of fun, this one. Light fun. I love “fist cuisine.” Don’t know why “B.C.” — maybe to move the story back in time, maybe just ’cause the rhythm is right and it sounds good.

8. Candy Jail

Pain works on a sliding scale
So does pleasure in a candy jail
True love doesn’t come around any more than fate allows
On a Monday in Fort Lauderdale

I came all this way to see your grave
To see your life as writ in paraphrase
I have tried thee,” it is written, “in the furnace of affliction
This is what you couldn’t face

Life in a candy jail
With peppermint bars
Peanut brittle bunk beds
And marshmallow walls

Where the guards are gracious
And the grounds are grand
And the warden keeps the data on your favorite brands

Jelly beans and cookie dough
Country restroom on the radio
I got a number on my name
It’s hard to rise above the shame
I’m a branded man made in the mold

These terms engulf the waking mind
Like cherry, grape and lemon lime
Like candy corn and licorice
Like bubble gum and Swedish fish
It happens to me all the time

Living in a candy jail
With peppermint bars
Peanut brittle bunk beds
And marshmallow walls

Where the guards are gracious
And the grounds are grand
And the warden really listens
And he understands

Thoughts: At first I thought the candy jail was addiction. But now I’m thinking he’s talking to someone who committed suicide to leave a place that was easy, comfortable, but imprisoning. Maybe. Again, I dunno. “Country restroom” sounds like a pun on “country & western” — maybe the person who he’s singing to used this phrase. I kind of wonder if it’s Jeremy Blake or his wife he’s singing to. That might make some sense. What is an obituary or eulogy but a “life-as-written paraphrase”? I feel like I sound like a bit of a wanker in these analyses, and I don’t want to kill what’s great about these songs by thinking about them too much. But those are my thoughts. Great song.

9. Party Barge

Father drove a steam roller
Mama was a crossing guard
She got rolled when he got steamed
And I got left in charge
Living in a little town
With my pedigree in shards
I chopped down a weeping willow tree
And built this party barge

Ports of call, DayGlo bait
Why not see a legend while it’s still being made
Things get kind of squirrelly when you’re sleeping in the park

Jam too far propagating in the night
My colleagues and associates have kicked out all the lights
Like I said they say,
“Nothin’ stops a party barge”

This is Lake Directory
Calling party barge
On the phone with pond control
They say you are at large
Lend us your coordinates
We’ll send a St. Bernard
Things get kind of squirrelly when you’re sleeping in the park
Chicken fried pigeon in a Sonny James sauce
Satan’s jeweled lobster has your wife in its claws
Like I said they say,
“Nothin’ stops a party barge”

Send us your coordinates, I’ll send a St. Bernard (3x)

This is Lake Directory
Calling party barge

Thoughts: Orphandom. tree born of sorrow made into ship of fools. Another “squirrelly” reference. Dizzy absurdity. Snow rescue dogs doing lake rescues. Loss of spouse to crustacean underling. Quoting of hedonistic dictum. APB?

10. We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing

Way, way out past where the sidewalks disappear
And up through bright blue blocks of sky
Where the days turn to weeks in the months of the year
And we’re together you and I

We could be looking for the same thing
If you’re looking for someone
We could belong to each other
If you’re not seeing anyone

I hope I don’t come across as a coyote in your eye
But I been around some and I’ve seen
Enough to know we could both spend happy lives
Inside the days of you and me

We could be looking for the same thing
If you’re looking for someone
We could belong to each other
If you’re not seeing anyone

Thoughts: A very lovely, straightforward, this-could-be-mature-love song.


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Responses

  1. They performed on the Marc Riley show on BBC 6music and David explained that the BC in the title “San Francisco BC” refers to Bill Callahan. He said someone he met asked him to pass a message to Bill. He said it sounded like a good title.

  2. This is a great post. Great job finding that press kit. Check out my blog… I’ve got some Silver Jews stuff on there.

  3. Posted your belly dancing gal to “the wild kindness” video brilliant over at my blog. I was and still am a big Silver Jews fan….question?
    I had a ep Star Wars Cantina I think it was called years ago do u know if this still exists.
    Thanks.

  4. I wish you’d love my music as much as Silver Jews! :o)


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