Untangling Silver Jews’ 2005 Album ‘Tanglewood Numbers’

Sometimes, mistakes are made. I recently started doing this “column” where I write a piece every week looking at one album from a year in the past. Going back in five-year increments, a conceit I have now used for movies, TV, and music for whatever reason, I started off with 2015, moved smoothly into 2010, and then had a delightful time about 2000’s The Moon and Antarctica. Wait, you might wonder, what happened to 2005? Well, like I said, mistakes are made on occasion. Evidently, I forgot 2005. Now, I shall amend that.

When I saw that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!’s self-titled album came out in 2005, it immediately put me in a mindset for the year. This was at the peak of Pitchfork’s powers and blog bands and all that stuff. It was also the year that Bright Eyes two albums, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, two albums I loved at the time. I remember sitting in my car listening to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, because I had stopped driving around, which is what I had done for Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Those are the two Bright Eyes albums that really hold up for me. Wolf Parade released the excellent Apologies to the Queen Mary, which rules. The National dropped Alligator. Limp Bizkit released two albums, including a greatest hits album. Wait, that sucks! However, the album I want to talk about is an album I did not listen to at the time, Silver Jews’ Tanglewood Numbers.

It feels inherently bleak to talk about Silver Jews these days. The band was fronted by David Berman, and it was largely an outlet for his poetry turned lyrics. Berman was friends with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich from Pavement, and they were involved in a few Silver Jews albums. Pavement is my favorite band, and that is what got me into Silver Jews, who I also consider a favorite band. Silver Jews released their last album in 2008, making Tanglewood Numbers their penultimate release, but Berman returned under a new moniker in 2019, Purple Mountains. He released one very good album and then, tragically, committed suicide. There was drug abuse and a suicide attempt in the leadup to Tanglewood Numbers as well. A cloud hangs over any discussion of Berman these days. His depression was always readily evident in his music. It can make for a rough listen these days. I definitely have not returned to Purple Mountains since Berman’s death.

This is a little weird, because I wanted to write about Berman and Silver Jews, and Tanglewood Numbers is the only album of theirs released in a year divisible by five. It’s also my least-favorite Silver Jews album. Is it good? Sure. But even the songs I really enjoy, like “Sleeping is the Only Love” and “Punks in the Beerlight” have their drawbacks. I never want to listen to the seven minutes of “The Farmer’s Hotel.” There is no song on this album I love. Fittingly, “Sleeping is the Only Love” is the closest I feel to that. Tanglewood Numbers feels ragged. It’s lyrics are less refined, even for a poet working in the realm of music. I just can’t fully embrace the album. Tanglewood Numbers holds me at a distance.

The musicians we love are not perfect. I won’t say that Tanglewood Numbers feels like a first draft album, but it kind of seems like a second draft album. It’s raw, but not emotionally like so much of Berman’s work. The songs feel half baked and ragged. I like lo-fi, but this isn’t quite like that. A tragic cloud surrounds Berman’s legacy, but it hasn’t driven me to view his work through rose-colored glasses. He made some truly brilliant work. There is some of that in Tanglewood Numbers. There’s just not a ton of it.

About Chris Morgan

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