There’s always going to be something defensive about naming a somewhat neglected, in-your-eyes masterpiece as one of your “favorites”. It’s sort of like calling the physically underdeveloped ballplayer “scrappy”. If you can’t point to some crusty vestiges of the canon clinging to it, a Billboard Hot 100 Heatseeker rating, or at least YouTube plays, then you can always confer the notion of objective goodness by picking something out as your “favorite”. And that act is just as transparent as it sounds.
Well, but still. The Natural Bridge is my ‘favorite’ Silver Jews album. (At least until I get to thinking about American Water.)
First things first. The Natural Bridge is a geological formation now located in a town named after itself, Natural Bridge, VA. Natural Bridge, VA is about three hours west of Williamsburg, VA, where Dave Berman was born. The Natural Bridge was apparently “a sacred site of the Native American Monacan tribe”. The Natural Bridge is the first album where the Silver Jews shook off their Pavement stink, though it’s also the first album where all reviews of it mention this fact, thereby sort of negating that point.
On the other hand, I’m disinterested in historiography, so let’s ‘look at’ some songs.
“How To Rent A Room” is just one installment in a series of perfect opening songs written by Dave Berman, and one installment in a slightly smaller series of perfect opening songs with perfect opening lines.
No I don’t really want to die.
I only wanted to die in your eyes.
Well, I’m not really entirely sure why, but I’m reasonably sure that one day when I was home from graduate school mowing my mom’s lawn (some things never change?), and I was listening to The Natural Bridge’s first song one-track repeat, it occurred to me that “How To Rent A Room”, like Turn Of The Screw, is a very subtle ghost story. Or, well, slightly less subtle, since the first person narrator and ghost dies or signals his death in those very first lines, which he continues:
I’m still here below the chandelier
Where they always used to read us our rights
Here, how, below the chandelier? Later in the song:
Chalk lines around my body
Like the shoreline of a lake
Your laughter made me nervous
It made your body shake too hard
Below the chandelier as a corpse. Below the chandelier where many a domestic dispute occurred. Below the chandelier, after the nervous-making laughter. Outlined in chalk, “like the shorelines of a lake”. (Beautiful way to be described as dead.)
There are a lot of clues (or, not clues so much as signposts, or blank, literal signifiers) as to what the song’s about. When the narrator (let’s call him Dave, not the biographical “David Berman”, but just because it’s easier to type and cognize) says, “Now there’s a lot of things that I’m gonna miss / Like thunder down country and the way water drips.” *Or how the song ends, *“Grant me one last wish. / Life should mean a lot less than this.”
What does this all actually mean, though? Why is it significant? I’m not entirely sure, but I find it hilarious and interesting for a few reasons, the first of which is not in itself interesting. It’s just that “How To Rent A Room” is a very literary song. Just about every stanza or verse makes mention of the ‘plot’, as it were, but in an oblique and challenging way.
I should have checked the stable door
For the name of the sire and dame
You were always at the dog track
With your brother and all his friends
I love this verse even though I’m not entirely sure what it means. It sounds foreboding, rich (hi-fallutin’), and low-culture - all simultaneously. I picture Dave skulking around an especially fancy dog track, trying to haunt his ex-wife and her family. Diction-wise, I especially like, “your brother and all his friends” because sounds like such a normal, low-key party down saying.
Finally, what does this all have to do with renting a room? I suppose the answer to that question is in part in the previous paragraph. The story, as best I can reconstruct it, is that Dave married into a wealthy family (one where the idea of even “renting a room” draws a collective blank; rent? but our dad’s house has many rooms…) - marries in against its matriarch’s wishes (”I’m a man who has a wife who has a mother / Who married one but she loved another”), and after incessant familial pressure, the wife offs Dave, who then makes it his post-life purpose to haunt the hell out them. And throughout, there are all these intense-but-minor meditations about what makes life good (“like thunder down country and the way water drips”). Maybe there was a plan for Dave to fake his own death (”I didn’t really want to die / I only want to die in your eyes”), but that obviously went awry. And then, as a final meditation on it all,
Life should mean a lot less than this.
What does that even mean? Life should mean a lot less than this? This what? Should according to whom? The meaning of life - what even is it? The thing is, “How To Rent A Room” is like an existential detective story, paean to nature, and a thumb-nosing fuck you all in one. So it’s basically a microcosm for the whole album, which is what a first track should do. And I didn’t even mention the profundity of the “tower without a bell / negative wishing well” image because, are you even still with me?
I couldn’t listen to the record after it was over for a while. And when I did listen to it I wanted to jump out a window. I just didn’t think I could let people here those kinds of things. The amount of pain I was in during the recording process.
It’s my understanding that The Natural Bridge was written in a small, rented cabin in Alabama (don’t quote me on that location). It is the first non-Malkmus/Nastanovich Silver Jews album. Dave was very unhappy. It is ‘the dark night of the soul’, a night time album, compared to the next album, American Water, which is a daytime album. (It’s sunny and 75 / It feels so good to be alive.) For whatever reason, this makes me eventually settle on The Natural Bridge as my favorite Silver Jews album. Because I’m not that smart, and I still equate unhappiness with intelligence, maybe.a
When I was in college, there was a lot of talk about intertextuality. Intertextuality this. Intertextuality that. V. is a prequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, which is a roadmap to the solstices and also all of European history or something plus Danny Boyle stole that toilet scene for Trainspotting: the Movie, I’m sure of it.
Well, The Natural Bridge is an intertextualist’s wet dream. There are these great ways different words and themes overlap and interweave. (Which is why I’ve chosen to break down the bulk of the Silver Jews through essays on themes rather than on albums — just wait…) For instance,
“Pet Politics” has this great line, “In the cold places where Spanish is spoken / Most wars end in the fall”, which seems to relate to the equally great line(s) from “Albermarle Station”, later on in the album,
There must be a Spanish word for this feeling
the rush I get when I am stealing
from the Dust Congress
whose dollars and dimes
say “In Dust We Trust”
I’m no history buff, so I’m not sure what Spanish-speaking cold climate war ended in autumn, but one gets the sense that maybe it was the one that established the Republic of Dust, long forgotten and turned to dust. (And perhaps recapitulated in “Federal Dust”, with the then and future dust brother, Mr. Malkmus?)
The poor woman missing her pet in “Pet Politics” might have been the owner of that one puppy that walked to Kentucky. And the gory story about about the man before Adam, well, could he be the “extra in our midst” from “Ballad of Reverend War Character”?
No. Well, not explicitly, according to the author. (I know I said I wasn’t into historiography…)
In an interview, Berman explains who that extra is:
’The extra in our midst’ is supposed to be the devil, from the perspective of the reverend the devil has brought these different characters to their individual miseries. This is not the way I see the world.
Still - that doesn’t preclude the intertextual friction you get from linking up the unholy census (in the reverend’s eyes), that extra devil in our midst, the the mouth-less, eye-less man who came before Adam. It just, I think, turns the whole mess of words into a pre-primordial meaning assemblage where you can pick out images, thoughts, or phrases and turn them around like puzzle pieces until they fit (or don’t) and make a new image.
“Ballad Of Reverend War Character” has another great line (well, several):
In a horror movie, when the car won’t start / You give it one last try.
I love how the song is a collection of tropes and idioms about, explicitly, characters: horror victim, Latin teacher, Guinevere, silhouette Jane, John Parker III, the new girl in Tahoe. It’s collage-like, and accretes meaning slowly.
Speaking of that new girl in Tahoe, in that same interview, after being asked about it, Berman also describes a bit of the thinking about “cum”:
Cum shows up three times on the record. When I was a kid people always used to say “cum bucket”. It made a picture in my mind, cum slopped over the edges. I forgot about the word for years until forming this album it came up again and kept sneaking into songs. Cum is a very private issue. The Natural Bridge has a lot of privacy issues going on inside.
Those three times, if you don’t have the entirety of the album in your RAM, are:
A new girl in Tahoe / swallows Sinatra’s cum (“Ballad Of Reverend War Character”)
*A blizzard blew in through the door / and little glowing cum buckets in her ankles” (“Dallas”)
Time, cum, sand, and surf / these are the building blocks of life (“The Frontier Index”)
Now, I have my own ideas about the popular use of “cum” in American-style freak folk indie music (Semen stains the mountaintops / Semen stains the mountaintops; “You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick is Hanging Out”), but Berman’s explanation is interesting.
“The Natural Bridge has a lot of privacy issues going on inside,” doesn’t exactly mean anything to me. Probably because “privacy issues” is his mental shorthand for a whole blossoming concept that I’m a stranger to. But I think Berman might mean something like “internality made external”. Ie, semen, which is a lot of things, but primarily (to me?) the welling up and literal explosion of interior desire into an exterior expression. That notion really just is like songwriting. And this wouldn’t be the first time one creative act were linked to another creative act.
That line in “Dallas” is really, just, the weirdest deployment of it, though, isn’t it? Let’s look.
I passed out on the fourteenth floor
The CPR was so erotic
A blizzard blew in through the door
And little glowing cum buckets in her ankles
W the literal TF? Why does Berman break the rhyme scheme by inserting the “glowing cum buckets” line? How can a cum bucket, which, Berman notes above, is a word he knows the meaning of, be in someone’s ankles. Well, it’s a metaphor. But a metaphor for what? It’s a total mystery to me, but I suspect it’s a sort of joke.
The song “Dallas” is one of the few ‘fast’ songs on the album, and it has by my count 4.666 jokes. (That’s a lot.) And it’s full of enthusiasm.
It’s literally about the first high school breakup David Berman had, and he had to go see this analyst (the one who was an NFL placekicker) and the guy had this framed of John Oates from Hall and Oates in his office; also, one time Berman walked into a room and saw the credits to General Hospital rolling on the TV and thought he saw the name BB King. Like, literally, that’s the material cause for this 100% brilliant song. To hit that ‘favorite’ topic again, if pressed for time I’d abdicate the process and just say “Dallas” is my favorite Silver Jews song because it’s so fucking beautiful, mysterious, heartbreaking, and funny. It covers the metamorphosis of the state of Texas from some thing we basically stole from Mexico to a 2,268,580 square mile temple to Capitalism and Not Paying State Tax, and it somehow does so while exploding the historical into bits and pieces of the personal. (Hello, Robert Lowell.)
You know, and it’s, just, The Natural Bridge has fully like five of my favorite Silver Jews songs ever; there are only ten songs on the album! There are these recurring themes (motifs, I hear they’re called).
Cowboys, dreams, architecture, stars, headlights, angels, driving. Doubling, god, the devil, barrooms, death. Cum, American history, ghosts.
It has some of the most memorable jokes (Hey boy, supper’s on me. / Our record just went aluminum); the most memorable ‘deep’ thoughts (What if life is just some hard equation / On a chalk board in a science class for ghosts); and the most memorable imagery (Well the water looks like jewelry / When it’s coming out the spout).
Sure, it’s not as out-and-out entertaining as American Water. It’s not as narratively powerful as Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. The Natural Bridge is the most powerfully Bermánian type of album for me, though. It is extremely sad, extremely memorable, infinitely listenable. It tells weird stories that have no point and tells strange riddles with no answers. Its songs contain worlds, universes, multiverses, and silly strings.
Remember how the album began by saying, “No I don’t really want to die / I only want to die in your eyes”? And I took that to mean that Dave wanted to fake his death to escape a mad heiresses thuggish family? Maybe it just meant he was in love. The album ends,
Though final words are so hard to devise
I promise that I’ll always remember your pretty eyes
Your pretty eyes