Purple Mountains is the strongest return one could hope for from Berman.
David Berman is depressed. Like, really depressed. If you’ve followed him for any length of time, this shouldn’t be a shock: as the sole permanent member of Silver Jews, he used his dictionary-like brain as a weapon of sadsackery, like Eeyore with an MFA. Even still, it always had an edge of comedy to it: “So if you don’t want me I promise not to linger/ But before I go I gotta ask you dear about the tan line on your ring finger,” he once sang on the wholly-quotable American Water opener “Random Rules.” But on Purple Mountains, the debut by his new band of the same name – and his first since 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, he’s extremely sad. “All my happiness is gone/ It’s all gone somewhere beyond,” he sings on “All My Happiness Is Gone” a bruiser of a line in a song – and album – so jam-packed with bruisers that you might end up genuinely concerned for Berman.
It starts with the first stanza: “Well, I don’t like talkin’ to myself/ But someone’s gotta say it, hell/ I mean, things have not been going well/ This time I think I finally fucked myself!” he sings over a simple guitar strum. It sets the tone for the entire album, both bouncy and melancholy, with pithy one-liners that only Berman could write; a decade away didn’t rob even a fraction of his ability to write hilarious, self-aware bummers that force you to laugh out loud at his pain. “When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/ I find my worst ideas know how to swim” is a worthy spectacular spiritual successor to “And so the rent became whiskey/ And then my life became risky.” It’s not always funny, and the downtempo “Nights That Won’t Happen” operates as a way for Berman to think about whether or not life is worth the hassle: “And when the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides/ All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind,” he sings plainly.
Berman’s hard-won sobriety has grounded him in many ways, bringing him the painful focus required to sing starkly about the dissolving of his marriage to his longtime wife and one-time musical partner Cassie – “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” “Darkness and Cold,” and “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” all focus on this, and it shades most every song outside of this. He also uses “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” – the one that Berman reports made him start playing music again after his decade of isolation – to process the grieving process of losing his mother: “When she was gone, I was overcome/ The simple fact left me stunned/ I wasn’t done being my mother’s son/ Only now am I seeing that being’s done.”
Lyrical sorrow like this can’t exist as comfortably on its own, and the sound of each song works as a counterbalance. Woods play the role of his backing band for the record, and their contributions are invaluable. Purple Mountains feels lived-in enough that I found myself wondering if I’d heard songs from it before. “All My Happiness Is Gone” turns its title into a bouncy sing-along chorus you can’t wait to belt out in the shower, and the scathing, organ-drenched dance number “Storyline Fever” will make you consider the risk of slipping while cutting a rug while you’re still in there. Woods never reinvent any wheels here, but that’s for the best – their brand of Americana helps Berman’s bitterness go down so smoothly.
Purple Mountains is the strongest return one could hope for from Berman, and far stronger than one might expect from someone so trapped in a quagmire of misery. In a breakdown of the songs of the record, he was shockingly candid about it: “There were probably 100 nights over the last 10 years where I was sure I wouldn’t make it to the morning. Yeah, I’m a very depressed person.” He goes on to say that completing this album has made him feel better, a comforting takeaway. It’s hard to know how to handle it when someone you love is going through a hard time, but armed with all the candor of a relative telling you their misery at Thanksgiving, we can only hope that airing his pain helps him overcome it – and at least he made it sound this damn good.