David Berman of Silver Jews & Purple Mountains Dies at 52

Yani Yordanova/Redferns
David Berman performs with Silver Jews in the U.K. on April 24, 2006.

The singer-songwriter released his first new music in a decade just last month.

David Berman, the songwriter and poet best known for co-founding the indie rock band Silver Jews, has died at the age of 52, his record label Drag City confirmed in a tweet. The cause of death is unknown at this time.

Berman formed Silver Jews in the late 1980s alongside Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who he befriended while the three were studying at the University of Virginia. The band's lo-fi mixture of noise rock and country music eventually got them signed to Drag City, which released two EPs by the group -- Dime Map of the Reef and The Arizona Records -- before putting out its debut album, Starlite Walker, in 1994. 

During Silver Jews' early years, Malkmus formed the better-known Pavement (eventually joined by Nastanovich), which became one of the signature alt-rock bands of the 1990s thanks to acclaimed, commercially-successful albums like Slanted and Echanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. During the Pavement years Malkmus and Nastanovich continued to perform with Berman in Silver Jews, which also went on to release a host of critically-revered LPs, most prominently 1998's American Water and 2005's Tanglewood Numbers. In the early 2000s Berman's wife Cassie Berman began playing with the group, contributing backing vocals and occasional bass to its last three albums.

Berman has been open in interviews about his longtime struggles with mental illness and addiction, which included at least one overdose and a 2003 suicide attempt. "When I was given the honor of being asked to read at my high school, I stayed up the night before smoking drugs beneath the expressway," he told The Poetry Foundation in an interview published last month. "That was bad. 2003. I smoked my last in the parking lot and stumbled in to greet my old English teacher, wild-eyed and coated in dust, after 18 years, without a copy of the book of course."

Malkmus and Nastanovich were absent from Silver Jews' final album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, released in 2008 to further acclaim. "It's really different in that the songs have more epic settings," Berman told Billboard at the time. "They are faux-heroic. Or rather foe-heroic. The music is never hard rock. Every song has a function or meaning that you could sum up in a few words."

Several months following Lookout Mountain's release, Berman, who was the group's sole constant member, disbanded it in January 2009 with a post on Drag City's website. "I always said we would stop before we got bad," he wrote. "If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to Shiny Happy People."

After a 10-year hiatus, Berman released a new album last month with the band Purple Mountains, which also consists of Woods members Jeremy Earl, Jarvis Taveniere, Aaron Neveu and Kyle Forester along with singer-songwriter Anna St. Louis. He was slated to begin touring behind the release this weekend.

During his lifetime Berman also released two collections of poetry, 1999's Actual Air and 2009's The Portable February.


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