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(Credit: Hanly Banks Callahan)

Music

Remembering Bill Callahan’s stunning cover of Silver Jews classic ‘Trains Across the Sea’

@TomTaylorFO

The warning signs were self-apparent on the only Purple Mountains LP as David Berman sang, “I confess I’m barely hanging on, all my happiness is gone.” As he said upon its release, “There were probably 100 nights over the last ten years where I was sure I wouldn’t make it to the morning.” Tragically when these portents came to fruition and the musicians’ struggles led to his suicide in 2019, his friend and Drag City labelmate, Bill Callahan wrote in tribute: “The world is and always will be a David Berman lyric.”

As the only constant member of the Silver Jews, Berman may not have ever escaped the doldrums of a cult favourite, but for fans of the late star, there is no doubting his position as one of the greatest indie songwriters ever. With an odd mix of characterful bravura and a shaky vulnerability – almost like the Mitch Hedberg of music – Berman was also one hell of an individualistic performer too. 

Of all of his contemporaries, Bill Callahan also carries this ability to shun the spotlight somewhat and beam while reclining into the shadows all the same. Naturally, this makes him a fitting foil for a Silver Jews classic at the best of times, however, the poignancy in the performance below is pointed given that they were great friends and Callahan was playing not far from where Berman died in New York City only a month after his passing.

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Like all of Berman’s work, Callahan shrouds the tear-jerking reality of the cover with a beauteous melody. Humbly purred with a casual profundity, it’s a cover of such honeyed belle that you hope if the world is a David Berman lyric, then it’s the one about the stars being the headlights of angels on their way to save us.

The song ‘Trains Across the Sea’ is from Silver Jews 1994 debut record Starlite Walker. As the second track on the record, it wonderfully announces the mix of wry wit and cutting wisdom that would blossom throughout the rest of their back catalogue, as Berman croons: “Half hours on Earth, what are they worth? I don’t know / In 27 years, I’ve drunk 50,000 beers / And they just wash against me, like the sea into a pier.”

You can check out Callahan’s stirring cover below.