Andrew Recommends: “Blue Arrangements” by Silver Jews

October. Evening. A downtown bar. I swap stories about Pavement with Peter Coviello, visiting to read from his memoir, Long Players. The stories meander into talk about the Silver Jews, and then David Berman’s poetry collection, Actual Air. The talk opens a window on an evening I haven’t remembered in many years.

***

I’m twenty-one and inside an apartment just off the Cal State Hayward campus with a couple named Josh and Katie — fellow creative writing undergrads. It’s fall and by the end of the year, the three of us will leave for MFA programs. I’ll stumble upon Katie once years later in Fargo, ND but ultimately lose track of them both even in the age of social media.

Near the end of the evening, Josh slips American Water in the stereo and Berman’s voice curls out of the speakers, “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” They wait for me to acknowledge the great choice he’s made, but the music is unfamiliar. As a Pavement fan, they assume I know the lineage between Stephen Malkmus and Silver Jews, but I’m in unknown territory. Disbelief spreads across Josh’s face in a spectrum moving from disappointment to joy. He understands the pleasure of unveiling music to another listener.

Katie and Josh are intimate with the tracking of the album. They anticipate each coming lyrical turn and direct my attention to lines like “the alleys are the footnotes of the avenues,” from “Smith and Jones Forever.”

We drink beers, laugh, and patiently pause songs to discuss the poetic choices that David Berman delivers as the album progresses. And then we get to the back-to-back punch of “People” followed by “Blue Arrangements.”

“People” lopes to a climax as Berman’s voice drones, “The drums march along at the clip of an I.V. drip / Like sparks from a muffler dragged down the strip,” while Malkmus’s voice dances in and out in accompaniment. And then “Blue Arrangements” sidles in. Malkmus on the front vocals this time, speak-singing “I see you gracefully swimming with the country club women / in the Greenwood southside society pool. / I love your amethyst eyes and your protestant thighs / you’re a shimmering socialite jewel.” The song rises into a frantic chorus and then transitions from coda into a rollicking guitar breakdown.

It’s a sublime four-and-a-half minutes of delight in language and sound. It’s perfect to sustain the three of us — so desperate to be in love with crafting words, so sure that this charm will never wear off.

***

Twenty years later in Iowa, Peter tells me his nephew has turned him on to a song (“I Feel Extra-Natural”) by a New York band called LVL UP. He half sings the lyrics, “I feel insane when you get in my bed / is something sweet that the Silver Jews said.” We both smile. We know the lyric’s sentiment is correct.

In his poem, “The Charm of 5:30,” Berman writes: “Somewhere in the future I am remembering today.” Over and over, in that future or this one, songs like “Blue Arrangements” call us back to remember.

(Song recommendation by Andrew Jones)

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