Because David Berman is the reclusive singer-songwriter behind legendary indie band Silver Jews and the author of the acclaimed poetry collection Actual Air, you might approach his self-titled debut as Purple Mountains expecting to encounter inscrutable symbolism. The album — Berman’s first since abruptly ending Silver Jews in 2009 and essentially going off the grid — will immediately disabuse you of this notion. Berman became an underground icon by seasoning his sideways insights with references to depressed ponies and trains across the sea. But if his shambolic indie rock koans were often oblique, he’s also the poet who once wrote, “I am trying to get at something/ and I want to talk very plainly to you/ so that we are both comforted by the honesty.” On Purple Mountains he embraces that impulse to a radical extent and comes away with a devastating self-portrait, delivered one bracingly literal observation at a time.
“That’s Just The Way That I Feel,” the honky-tonk rambler that begins the album, is an overture of sorts, a synopsis of the mess Berman’s made during these 10 years away. Defying conventional perceptions of great singing in his droll, unmistakable drawl, he admits, “Things have not been going well/ This time I think I finally fucked myself.” He laments, “The life I live is sickening/ I spent a decade playin’ chicken with oblivion.” He confesses, “When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/ I find my worst ideas know how to swim.” We are treated to a rundown of “ceaseless feats of schadenfreude” he’s served up for his foes, including this gem: “I nearly lost my genitalia to an anthill in Des Moines.” He informs us he’s been humbled by the void and his faith has been destroyed. Most distressingly, we learn his marriage has disintegrated.
During the final phase of Silver Jews, the era that yielded 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers and 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Berman appeared to be enjoying a happy ending of sorts. He’d survived crack addiction and a suicide attempt and was reinvesting in Judaism. His songwriting was revitalized. He even took the band on the road for the first time. A big reason for this personal renaissance seemed to be his marriage to Cassie Marrett, who stayed with him in his darkest hour and became part of the Silver Jews live band. On songs like “Punks In The Beerlight,” he professed his devotion in beautifully simple outbursts: “I love you to the max!” The collapse of their relationship has pushed him to even more vulnerable places, resulting in some of the album’s most heartbreaking passages. I mean: “And when I see her in the park, it barely merits a remark/ How we stand the standard distance distant strangers stand apart.”
Throughout Purple Mountains Berman returns to that word: “stranger.” On the triumphantly dour lead single “All My Happiness Is Gone,” one of the record’s many exercises in cognitive dissonance, he muses, “Lately I tend to make strangers everywhere I go/ Some of them were once people I was happy to know.” Song after song, he wrestles with the sense that he is helpless to stop alienating his friends and loved ones. “I want to be a warm and friendly person,” he sings, “but I don’t know how to do it.” The press cycle for Purple Mountains has ably illustrated this pattern; Berman told Uproxx he was ghosted by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, a fellow Nashville resident he met at Harmony Korine’s Hannukah party. Auerbach, who cowrote Purple Mountains closing track “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me” with Berman and longtime collaborator Gate Pratt, told the Washington Post it was Berman who cut off communication between them.
With that imbroglio in mind, Berman may not be the most reliable narrator. Yet regarding the most painful ruined relationship of them all, there is no toxic finger-pointing, except perhaps at himself. If the guy who was “hospitalized for approaching perfection” ever struck you as a bit too smug, years of self-inflicted suffering have humbled and chastened him. He never communicates anger about his wife leaving, just a resigned sadness and frustration about his inability to maintain human connection. Purple Mountains only gives us snapshots of Berman’s breakup, but it’s easy enough to connect the dots between the self-explanatory “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger” and “Darkness And Cold,” where he spots the light of his life on a date “without a flicker of regret.” His plainspoken rawness in these accounts will sandblast your soul, but he hasn’t devolved into stream-of-consciousness splatter. Rather, his writing is sharper than ever, aligning this newfound transparency with the same wry compositional brilliance he brought to his old band. “Darkness And Cold” in particular should be taught in classrooms for the way Berman’s wordplay wrings joy from a miserable story.
That story seems to have begun with the end of the Silver Jews, a decision that contributed to Berman’s legend but now scans as one act of self-sabotage among many. Upon ending the band, he wrote, “Cassie is taking it the hardest. She’s a fan and a player but she sees how happy i am with the decision.” His reasons for pulling the plug were muddled but obvious enough. In true Gen X fashion, he feared careerism and aging into a parody of himself — a subject he remains fixated on in recent interviews, pondering the creative decline that befalls most of his peers. In his farewell note he joked that he didn’t want to end up writing his very own “Shiny Happy People,” a fate he has resoundingly avoided here.
At the time he also devoted himself to exposing his estranged father, the lobbyist Richard Berman, who he described as “a despicable man” and condemned for “[propping] up fast food/soda/factory farming/childhood obesity and diabetes/drunk driving/secondhand smoke.” During the interim between Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, Berman was even in talks to sell this story to HBO before bailing due to fear the network would paint his father as a charming antihero. It’s hard to say if anything has come of this crusade beyond Berman’s small circle of fans viewing his dad as a bogeyman; his whistleblowing site BermanExposed.com now redirects to his father’s Berman And Company homepage — one more exercise in futility to add to the pile.
If Berman’s quest to bring down his father was his personal and creative undoing, his desire to pay tribute to his mother is what brought him back from the brink. He began writing again in the wake of her death, and the first song that emerged established a surprisingly reverent new template. “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” evokes the tender confessionals of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, Mark Kozelek’s last masterpiece before going off the deep end. Yet where Kozelek’s subsequent releases devolved into gratuitous meandering freestyles, Berman slaved over every word, and it shows. Members of Woods — the psych-folk band Berman recruited to render each Purple Mountains song with a graceful Americana sheen — have noted his meticulous approach in interviews, and the man himself has talked repeatedly about how hard he had to work to live up to the quality of his classic work.
He pulled it off. Although this new perspective merits a new moniker, Purple Mountains does justice to Berman’s legacy. You never forget you’re hearing the guy from Silver Jews, especially on the occasions when he zooms out from his own situation to once again examine the world at large: his musings on life under a silent god in “Margaritas At The Mall,” his warnings against confirmation bias in “Storyline Fever.” On a heavier note, those who know Berman’s story might be alarmed at the unrelentingly bleak “Nights That Won’t Happen,” where he professes, “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.” Berman says the song is about his regret over not being there for an old drug buddy when they passed away, but at first I worried about what those lyrics might mean for his own state of mind, especially given the album’s occasional resemblance to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, morbid dispatches from men who sensed death was imminent.
“Nights That Won’t Happen” is perhaps the lowest valley in all of Purple Mountains, but surveyed in full, the project presents a man forging ahead with renewed purpose. A tracklist that begins with Berman proclaiming “the end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting” (more like Silver Buddhists am I right) wraps up with “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me,” wherein he concludes, “I’ll have to learn to like myself.” Redemptive even at its most absurd, the song plays out like a middle-aged male misanthrope version of “thank u, next” where a storybook ending no longer feels realistic but reconciling your internal turmoil is necessary all the same.
Berman is working on it, and crucially, he’s not doing it alone. He may not know how to stop pushing people away, but the mere existence of Purple Mountains suggests he’s figuring out how to let them back in, collaborators and listeners alike. Not only has he returned from obscurity, he’s done so with a work of startling intimacy. Wading into such deep despair can be harrowing, but as dark as Purple Mountains can be, it’s an invitation to fellowship all the same. The mini-manifesto Berman buried deep inside the calm of “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan” confirms as much: “Songs build little rooms in time/ And housed within the song’s design/ Is the ghost the host has left behind/ To greet and sweep the guest inside/ Stoke the fire and sing his lines.”
Purple Mountains is out 7/12 on Drag City. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
•Ed Sheeran’s star-studded No.6 Collaborations Project.
•The Frightened Rabbit tribute album Tiny Changes.
•Blood Orange’s post-Negro Swan mixtape Angel’s Pulse.
•Miami metalheads Torche’s hard-hitting Admission.
•Southern rap powerhouse Big K.R.I.T.’s K.R.I.T. IZ HERE.
•Looking Through The Shades, Title Fight member Ned Russin’s (Sandy) Alex G-produced debut as Glitterer.
•DC punk supergroup Gauche’s debut A People’s History Of Gauche.
•LA rock sisters Bleached’s immensely catchy Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough.
•Noise-rock heroes Metz’s singles collection Automat.
•Yuna’s moody and sophisticated pop collection Rouge.
•Weather, chill-beats-to-study-to pioneer Tycho’s dive into pop songwriting.
•Rust On The Gates Of Heaven, the latest from Jacob Bannon’s Converged side project Wear Your Wounds.
•Johannesburg collective Africa Express’ guest-heavy EGOLI.
•Noise icon Merzbow’s archival set Noise Mass.
•Joanna Sternberg’s tender indie-pop collection Then I Try Some More.
•UK buzz band Penelope Isles’ promisingly ambitious debut Until The Tide Creeps In.
•Alt-pop striver Banks’ III.
•DIY mainstay Mal Blum’s Pity Boy.
•Indie veterans Imperial Teen’s first album in seven years, Now We Are Timeless.
•Hasta El Cielo, a dub version of Khruangbin’s Con Todo El Mundo.
•Knife Wife’s Family Party EP.