I've never figured out how I feel about Silver Jews, which is like saying I've never figured out how I feel about oranges. Oranges are oranges, the Silver Jews are what they are, and both get along fine without me. But all of that is horseshit because both are there to be consumed. A song is nothing if not a wish. And there are times when an orange is perfect, exactly what I needed, and there are times when the Silver Jews are also perfect—this summer, for some reason, for me at least. What's truer to say, then, is that there are times when I can take or leave Silver Jews and times when a song of theirs solves a hunger. This song, "The Frontier Index," comes closest to always being that.
The next-to-last song on the Silver Jews' second full-length album, The Natural Bridge, "The Frontier Index" opens with a worried guitar figure that sounds like it resolves but never truly does, and nothing resolves in this song, it just spins around. Not to say it doesn't have dynamics. The first thirty seconds, right? "Look, a horse! Of course!" Under Berman's vocals the drums stumble around and fill up the room. Berman's poetics are countered by jokes, like the "robot walks into a bar" couplet, and then the song empties into open space. The drums, because they've been so busy, sound like they've vanished. In the song's closing minute, all instrumental, the drums stick around under a shimmering guitar in one channel and a racket of interstellar miscommunication in the other.
Here's another joke from the song—
Boy wants a car from his dad.
Dad says "First you gotta cut that hair."
Boy says "Hey Dad, Jesus had long hair,"
And Dad says "That's right son, Jesus walked everywhere."
—a joke that could be considered an anti-joke, a shaggy-dog story, or a koan. You could keep looking for the answer to that one until the sun comes up. For some reason, most Silver Jews songs make me imagine another song hidden inside the song I'm listening to. I think it's David Berman's laconic singing; I wonder what the song would sound like if someone sang it more traditionally, or if Berman did…and then it seems like there's another "The Frontier Index" hiding inside of this one, somewhere behind those guitar parts. What are those drums covering up?
With more time to suss things out, I'd probably be able to make more sense of that Gnosticism, but oh well, that's how things go. And I don't know if I'd want to anyway. Is music criticism about exposing magicians? As if by naming a sub-genre and a few references you reveal the sleight of hand? Is knowing better than asking? If this song works for me all the time while other Silver Jews songs don't, maybe it's because every element of the song seems right and impossible to place. Or maybe it's because Berman's voice, which often seems like it can't be bothered to believe what it's singing, here sounds like someone's holding a gun to it. Tell us the fucking truth. He tries, the band tries, and whether or not they come up short, and no matter how ambiguous the song's collection of confessions, homilies, jokes, and descriptions are, the effort is true. Is there anything more human?
Berman's final words in the song:
When I was younger, I was a cobra.
In every case I wanted to be cool.
Now that I'm older, sub-space is colder,
Just want to say something true.
When I was younger I wanted to say something new, which is the same thing as being cool. That's what young artists want. Then I was older and I wanted to know. That's what pissed-off and justifiably bewildered people want. Now that I'm older, I'd rather say something true. Which seems likelier to lead to something new.