Just around 24 hours before I heard the news of David Berman’s passing, I turned in this review of PURPLE MOUNTAINS to this magazine. My impression of the record was, like many others, incredibly favorable, but my biggest takeaway from it was that it was an occasion for Berman to “emerge from the shadows” of his life to this point. The journalistic coverage surrounding that project, mine included, was almost overwhelmingly concerned with Berman’s state of being, which, given his well-documented struggles with addiction and mental health, makes sense, because for the many people that loved David Berman the artist, the news that we received today was something that we had feared hearing for several years. I desperately wanted the record, and the subsequent tour, to be the thing that took Berman from someone that was bogged down by his struggles to someone who had survived despite them.
It’s hard to really know what to say about this, and I think Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast summed it up just as well as anyone could here.
David Berman’s death is a painful reminder that we don’t always get through to the other side of these feelings, even when it, externally, looks as if we have, and that’s going to be a very difficult pill to swallow. Even if I wasn’t a fan as long as others, I truly can’t think of a time when I’ve ever been so convinced that someone deserved that storybook ending as I am with him. He had a huge heart, a generous soul, and a tremendous gift for making sense of the bad things in the world. — Adam Cash
Favorite Tracks: “All My Happiness Is Gone”, “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”, “Darkness and Cold”, “Storyline Fever”, “That’s Just The Way That I Feel”
Genre: Psych Country, Indie Rock
You’d be forgiven for dismissing PURPLE MOUNTAINS as a fairly tired idea—a comeback album from an aging, white, male, indie rock hero in which he laments the way that his life has changed as he gets older. In fact, that rings doubly true for songwriter David Berman specifically, whose career has been pockmarked by events that have occasionally led him to bitterness and self-destruction (and perhaps understandably so). For those whom Berman isn’t a familiar name: he was the frontman of long-running indie heroes Silver Jews, a band that had a delightfully meandering and country-tinged sound that was strongly influential on similarly minded bands in the early 2000s, most noticeably on early recordings from The National. However, Silver Jews were frequently overshadowed by Pavement, the band led by guitarist Stephen Malkmus that had become more commercially successful. The frequent mischaracterization of Silver Jews as a “side project” of Pavement, a contentious relationship with his father, whom he revealed to be a cartoonishly evil political lobbyist, issues with addiction, and a suicide attempt all contributed to a popular image of Berman as a reclusive and tortured creative genius, and Berman had been on musical hiatus since 2008, with PURPLE MOUNTAINS being his first full-length project in 11 years.
Based on his past and on how some of his peers have handled making music into their middle age, it’s a pleasant surprise that there’s actually a lot of upbeat qualities to PURPLE MOUNTAINS. In collaboration with a backing band made up of part of Brooklyn indie-folkers Woods, Berman has created a sound that is, generally speaking, far more dynamic than anything Silver Jews ever did. In a stark and immediate departure from the Jews’ lo-fi sound, PURPLE MOUNTAINS immediately introduces a sort of melancholic honky-tonk sound with “That’s Just the Way That I Feel.” It becomes evident quickly that, as expected, Berman is pretty fucking bummed out about everything. What’s not expected is that the music is fun. The opener, along with the following tracks, “All My Happiness Is Gone” and “Darkness and Cold” (which, by the way, has an incredibly fun music video that does a lot to take the air out of the lyrics of the song), follow a fairly similar formula: match Berman’s musings on his despair with lyrics like “I nearly lost my genitalia / to an anthill in Des Moines” and a bouncy, bubbly indie country song filled with fun bass lines, driving percussion, and sweet synthesizer melodies. There’s not a lot, necessarily, to laugh at, but considering how much of a chore listening to this record could have been, the first three songs, despite their subject matter, are rich and enjoyable listens.
Even when Berman’s songs turn more meditative, they remain compelling both as constructed narratives and personal statements. Berman dives into political issues with frequency, but when he does, he does a masterful job of weaving them into his own personal story. “Margaritas at the Mall” is a song that touches on spirituality, nihilism, and purpose amidst nods at his own story with addiction as a coping mechanism. “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me” is, per Berman himself, a song written from the perspective of an incel, while also a meditation about his life after separating from his wife. “Storyline Fever” is a song that, like a lot of recent indie rock tunes, bears something of a resemblance to the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey.” “Storyline Fever” is a contemplation both on modern consumption of information and on how he himself is treated by fans and media.
Berman has created a special project with PURPLE MOUNTAINS—aside from Berman’s refreshing take on how to navigate a return to spotlight for a legacy artist, he’s created something that will allow those who weren’t familiar with or, perhaps, aren’t old enough to be familiar with his past work to get into it. It’s charming, it’s funny in spite of its dark themes, and it’s poignant, and easily one of the year’s best so far. After so much time spent, seemingly, trying to avoid the shadow of Pavement, PURPLE MOUNTAINS gives him the change of scenery to retool his work and become an artist that, against the odds, demands to be listened to.