Purple Mountains: the triumphant return of David Berman
“Things have not been going well,” sings David Berman on “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” the opening track of his debut album as Purple Mountains. The song doubles as a catch-up to to any questions of “What have you been doing in the 10 years since you lit a match to Silver Jews and pulled a JD Salinger?” In his typical dark-humored style, Berman recounts a “decade playing chicken with oblivion,” with much of his faith destroyed, nearly losing his “genitalia to an anthill in Des Moines” and watching his “foes enjoy ceaseless feasts of schadenfreude.” All to an ace honky tonk country backing.
When he ended his old band, he wrote “I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to Shiny Happy People.” He left it all for domestic life with his wife/bandmate Cassie (though that didn’t go so well either, read on), but he continued to write and rewrite. Rumors, mostly from former Silver Jews/Pavement member Bob Nastanovich, started circulating in 2015 that “the ice has melted” and Berman had new songs. After false starts collaborating with Dan Bejar, Dan Auerbach, Stephen Malkmus and Jeff Tweedy, he found compatible collaborators in Woods’ Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere and here we are with Purple Mountains which they banged out in Chicago, for the most part, in less than a week. It’s one of Berman’s best records and there is no “Shiny Happy People” but there is “All My Happiness is Gone” and “Darkness and Cold.” It’s that kind of record.
Taking the name from “God Bless America,” Purple Mountains could’ve been a Silver Jews record, though Purple Mountains fits the sound of the album, his most overtly twangy record to date. And like the best of country, Berman is laying bare the ups and (mostly) downs of his life for us to enjoy, a tear in his beer or, in the case of the album’s best song, margaritas at the mall. There’s not a lot of metaphor here, but his lyrics, as usual, are witty, eloquent, rich with detail, and there’s barely an unconsidered word.
Much of the focus is on the dissolution of his marriage with Cassie. “I completely retreated into our house and buried myself in books,” Berman told The Washington Post. “I saw no one and did nothing. Cassie continued to make friends, to play music, to go on vacations and be with family and I Bartlebied my way out of all of it.” This plays out in song form on “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger” (“I wanna be a warm and friendly person, but I don’t know how to do it’), “Darkness and Cold” (“The light of my life is going out tonight without a flicker of regret”) and, in a song worthy of George Jones, “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me.”
Death is also ever present on Purple Mountains, be it a lovely ode to his late mother, or the genuinely touching and thoughtful “Nights That Won’t Happen” (“All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind”). “Margaritas in the Mall,” meanwhile, takes on faith, philosophy and the state of our country, asking “how long can the world go on with such a subtle god,” wishing for a little Old Testament involvement perhaps, but concluding we’re all just killing time, “drinking margaritas at the mall, that’s what this stuff adds up to after all.”
Earle and Taveniere, with help from other Woods members as well as Anna St. Louis and Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux), bring the memorable melodies to life with countrified arrangements that never lay on the syrup or drift into pastiche. Nor does it let Berman wallow — Purple Mountains is an entertaining album, even fun, especially on “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” “Margaritas at the Mall,” and “All My Happiness is Gone” which sounds like the Nashville offspring of “I Melt With You” and “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” There’s even a glimmer of pure beauty on the delicate “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan,” with Berman singing about the power of music. “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.”
In recent interviews Berman has talked at length about that “Shiny Happy People” theory and how critics and fans give veteran artists (like Springsteen or Pearl Jam) a pass when they make a mediocre record and in turn encourage more mediocre music, but he’s putting his money where his mouth is with Purple Mountains. Hopefully it won’t be another 10 years till he makes another record, but if it’s as good as this, it’d be worth the wait.
Berman, with most of Woods in tow, will take Purple Mountains on the road later this year.