A Year in Books--ACTUAL AIR
I was introduced to the Silver Jews back in late high school/early college by my friend Dan. I remember him showing me the opening track of their album American Water, called "Random Rules." It sardonically begins, "In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection," and goes on to weave a tale of mistakes made, love lost, and chaos reigning supreme. The first thing that struck me about the song was the lyrics. Though some of it was beyond my scope--I still had a fair amount of mistakes to make and experiences to have--I was drawn to David Berman's willingness quick and clever turns of phrase as well as his willingness to self deprecate and paint himself in a sort of sleazy fucked up light.
I did a fair amount of listening to the Silver Jews up until they released Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea in 2008, an album which I disliked so much that I stopped listening to them. I eventually forgot about the band, or more accurately shelved them somewhere deep in my consciousness, only to rediscover them about three months ago when I was looking through album releases from 2008--a move also inspired by my same friend, Dan.
Upon listening to Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea again, I couldn't really what it was that had so turned my off. I mean, I'm not exactly about to put the record on my frequently-spun list, but there are one or two tracks that are pretty good. Who knows what was up? I then went on to re-listen to American Water--which should really be billed as a Silver Jew/Stephen Malkmous album, maybe The Silver Jicks, eh? Get it?--as well as their first two releases, and I was again struck again by lyrics, but this time, none of it was beyond me. In fact, it felt very personal.
I dove into their lyrics on Genius, digging through and thinking to myself how great it would be for Berman to release a compendium of his lyrics. They're the kind of work that doesn't need melody or orchestration to deliver a point, and hold up on a cold read. I then realized, 'Hey, maybe he has done this!' and through some deep research--aka perusing Amazon.com for 2.5 minutes-- I came to find that though he hadn't released a compilation of his lyrics, he had released a book of poetry. That book is what I am writing about this week, titled Actual Air.
One thing that's great about poetry is that when you really connect with it, you can tear through a whole volume of it in no time at all. This was exactly my experience with Actual Air.
Berman the poet is slightly different than Berman the songwriter, and if I had any say in it, I'd put his poetry work first as the most impressive. This is not to knock his musical work, I really like those first three albums, but they are all colored by hearing Pavement before I had heard The Silver Jews--even though The Silver Jews were apparently a band even before Pavement had begun. It's not that I dislike the whole indie slacker rock thing, in fact I really like it and have been playing some version of it in bands for almost my whole life. It's just that there is nothing particularly revelatory about the music, some of it can even be mistaken for a Pavement B-side or single that you've somehow never heard. Yes, Berman is a better lyric writer than Malkmous most of the time, but otherwise their songwriter-ly sensibilities are comparable. Though, with a gun to my head, on most days I'd prefer The Silver Jews as they tend to be a bit less bombastic than Pavement. Though, on other days, I'd say the reverse. I suppose it doesn't matter either way.
Anyhow, Berman the poet leans hard into storytelling particularly in the first section of this book. His chosen subjects for his micro-tales are people like stenographers and husbands staring at trinkets on the top of the fireplace, and his settings are places like community colleges or long hallways in an old house, or a snow covered landscape, or even the fourth dimensional psychological space we impose on something as banal as a window. If I remember correctly, he compares it to a screen through which he can sit down and view the world.
Sometimes we travel with Berman, comfortably resting in some corner of his mind, privy to the reflecting and refracting of his perception as he wanders through a day. He often ruminates on things like what constitutes a room, and how it may be possible to be inside and outside of something at the same time, at one point mentioning how the snow can make the outdoors seem like a room. In a sense, here, I actually understand what he means. There is a certain feeling of protection or safety that comes with snow, where most "normal" everyday fears almost don't exist. Do you feel that too?
In short, Berman's book is good. Even better than his music. He only dips into difficult or abstract poetics maybe two or three times throughout the bulk of the collection, preferring to stay in the well written yet straight forward style of poetry which I prefer. If you're a frequent poetry reader, or have at least a little experience parsing through tightly written, highly symbolic prose, you shouldn't have a problem getting through this collection. Without much digging, profundities abound--kind of like his music, straightforward and easy to understand, but there's more to appreciate if you really sit and listen to it.
On my banana scale, I'd rate Actual Air a solid 4.3 bananas out of 5. But what really is a banana anyway, and what happens when it's left alone in a room, man?
The next book I will be reviewing for A Year in Books is the great Mark Twain's unfinished final novella, The Mysterious Stranger.