PURPLE MOUNTAINS : PURPLE MOUNTAINS
Label : Drag City
Release Date : July 12, 2019
Length : 44:21
Review (AllMusic) : After the Silver Jews ended in 2009, David Berman's retreat from music seemed so final that the mere existence of Purple Mountains is somewhat miraculous - and even more so because it's one of his finest collections of songs. For this go-round, Berman chose a brilliant band name: Purple Mountains is traditional but not obvious, familiar but with more than a hint of eternal mystery. While he's always been an eloquent songwriter, now he's also a direct one - it's as if these songs are making up for lost time as they let listeners know what's been on his mind during the years he was gone. Within the first few seconds of "That's Just the Way I Feel," the hapless honky tonk that begins Purple Mountains, Berman transports his audience back into his world instantly. Just as quickly, it becomes clear that this incarnation of his music isn't as ramshackle as the Silver Jews were, even at their most gussied-up. He's backed by Woods, who ably handle any challenge Berman throws at them, whether it's the ironically mighty brass that soundtracks his lack of faith on the standout "Margaritas at the Mall" or the velvety vibraphone and pedal steel on "Snow Is Falling on Manhattan." These timeless sounds mirror the classic tenor of Purple Mountains' songwriting. Over the years, Berman tried to record an album numerous times (with collaborators ranging from Destroyer's Dan Bejar to his old friend Stephen Malkmus), but reportedly couldn't finish his songs' lyrics. Based on how his simple, carefully chosen words let his wit and poetry ring out on Purple Mountains, it's safe to say that they were worth the wait. As he touches on his losses, Berman blends humor and heartbreak more masterfully - and quotably - than ever. "Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go/Some of them were once people I was happy to know," he sings on "All My Happiness Is Gone," a song with a shuffling beat that echoes Silver Jews' "Trains Across the Sea" and synth strings that feel decidedly Purple Mountains. He's even more eloquent on "Darkness and Cold," where he distills the growing distance between him and his estranged wife, Cassie, with lyrics like "the light of my life is going out without a flicker of regret." That song's flip side, "She's Making Friends, I'm Turning Stranger," boasts a country song title so archetypal that it almost didn't need to be fleshed out into an unflinching mix of self-awareness and jealousy with a bitterly strutting bass line and quietly seething pedal steel - but fortunately, it was. By the same token, Berman knows when to let a simple "she was, she was, she was" speak volumes on "I Loved Being My Mother's Son." Filled with lonely songs that are as warm as a hug from a long-lost friend, Purple Mountains is a potent, poignant reminder of Berman's gifts - and how much they, and he, will be missed.
Review (Pitchfork) : David Berman’s first new music in over a decade is a marvelous collection of heartbreak, grief, and bitterness. His careful writing has never sounded so exacting or direct. In 2009, David Berman quit music because he’s not a careerist; because he feared that he might start sucking; because, as he posited in an essay called “My Father, My Attack Dog,” his work as a songwriter could never offset the damage done to the world by his notorious corporate lobbyist father, Richard Berman, known as “Dr. Evil.” When HBO approached him during the hiatus to participate in a docuseries about his father Berman backed out, fearing it would end up being a sympathetic Tony Soprano-style portrait. But of all the reasons David Berman has given for abandoning his recording project, Silver Jews, the most pressing one was also the simplest: He wanted more time to read. And so, Berman spent his 40s at home in Nashville, surrounded by books—an experience that he recently described as being “kind of my childhood dream.” It’s an easy image to conjure for anybody acquainted with his body of work, an insular, quotable universe that spans six great-to-extraordinary studio albums, a collection of poetry, a book of cartoons, a documentary, a few EPs, and a compilation. Through it all, Berman maintained the role of the quiet outsider, someone proudly allergic to trends and devoted with scholarly intensity to things uncommon even in the individualist community of lo-fi indie rock: religion, country music, sobriety, an insistence on attributing deep significance to every word he sang and each interview he granted. On 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, the final Silver Jews album, Berman pared down his MFA-backed control of language for simple, allegorical writing. Throughout the record, his mood seemed light, as he sang words of love and perseverance, accompanied by his wife Cassie, the bassist and vocalist of his always-changing band (which has included, at various points, Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Will Oldham, and William Tyler). Having kicked a nearly fatal drug addiction and devoted himself to Judaism, Berman seemed to be in a good place back then. And while he’s always been one for fabrication—he has given several contradicting explanations for the “Silver Jews” band name through the years—he’s never been one for pure obfuscation. It was easy to believe him when he said he was done with music for good. There were a few appearances following his early retirement; you can find YouTube videos of him, clean-cut and suave, at a poetry reading and a Harmony Korine screening. But there was also a lot of quiet. You never really imagined a Silver Jews comeback, even after rumors started spilling about band practices and new songs with titles like “Wacky Package Eyes.” “No I don’t really want to die,” he sang a long time ago. “I only want to die in your eyes.” And so he did. The way Berman tells it, he picked up a guitar again after his mother’s death. “I think it was like meditation, but it was also like a massage,” he said of that familiar exercise, the wooden body vibrating against his chest. His strumming eventually spiraled into “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” a gentle highlight from his new comeback album under the name Purple Mountains. Lyrically bereaved but musically at peace, it sets the tone for the record as a whole. These are plainspoken songs of heartbreak, grief, and bitterness. One ballad, “Nights That Won’t Happen,” can be heard as a pros-and-cons list of just being alive. Backed by members of the Brooklyn psych-folk band Woods, however, Berman’s writing has never sounded so exacting or direct. These songs offer a solid introduction to all the beautiful contradictions that have always made his work so comforting and complex—a rare feat for a comeback album. As warm and immediate as the record sounds—heartland harmonica, cantina horns, and pedal steel all guide his words—Berman’s lyrics reveal all the reading that has inspired him. The singalong chorus of “Margaritas at the Mall” alludes to a philosophical text on the capitalist origins of purgatory; a line about treating the world as a “roadside inn” in “Nights That Won’t Happen” echoes a teaching by the second-century Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus. And the jaunty “Storyline Fever” continues his tradition of whimsical penultimate tracks by considering the span of life as a long narrative with an infinite number of possible outcomes—it reads a lot like an anxiety attack but sounds a little like the Kinks. That Berman has scrounged a college syllabus’ worth of texts for their most human uses is a testament to the enduring, tragic empathy of his writing. Few writers are so willing to submit to their lowest depths to make you feel less alone. While Purple Mountains is remarkable for affirming what we missed in Berman’s songwriting, it’s equally affecting for what it’s missing. He alludes to crises of faith in both “That’s Just the Way I Feel” and “Margaritas at the Mall,” a song that finds him at his wit’s end looking for answers from “such a subtle god.” His separation from Cassie after two decades of marriage casts a heavy shadow through nearly every song, a thematic and musical absence that gives the album an unsettling starkness. His voice has never been strong, but there’s a new helplessness to his delivery. “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting,” he sings weakly in the opening track. “If no one’s fond of fuckin’ me, maybe no one’s fuckin’ fond of me,” he grumbles in the last. These are the kinds of characters he once observed with self-aware distance; nowadays, he just sounds spent. The subject matter of Purple Mountains is grim, but he’s still David Berman, and he can still dazzle with the sheer beauty of his writing or wink at the camera to lighten the mood when necessary. Back when he first gained prominence in the ’90s, he was called a slacker, suggesting his unpolished delivery was either an affect or an ethos. Over time, he insisted just the opposite—that it was the striving that was important; that even if you couldn’t hold a note, it was worth showing the effort; that a song was something you spend a lifetime learning to sing right.
Review (Enola) : “You see, the life I live is sickening / I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion / Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in / I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been”. Na 10 jaar afwezigheid keert David Berman terug op het voorplan. Na Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea uit 2008 trok David Berman, na zes goede tot uitmuntende platen vol lo-fi americana, de stekker uit zijn band Silver Jews. Berman was de enige constante in Silver Jews, een band die hij begin jaren ‘90 oprichtte en waarvan Pavement-leden — en universiteitsvrienden — Stephen Malkmus en Bob Nastanovich occasioneel deel van uitmaakten. Nadat Berman zijn drugsverslaving overwon en echtgenote Cassie deel uitmaakte van de band, begon hij ergens rond 2004 ook live op te treden. Iets wat hij in het eerste decennium van de band nooit gedaan had. Maar na die laatste plaat besloot David Berman de band te ontbinden — naar eigen zeggen “vooraleer ze slechte muziek begonnen te maken” — en verdween hij van de muzikale radar. In die tien jaar gebeurde er nochtans heel wat. De relatie met zijn vader Richard Berman — een notoir lobbyist voor de voedingsindustrie die elke wetgeving met betrekking tot de bescherming van het milieu of rechten van de werknemers met alle middelen probeert de nek om te wringen — ging van kwaad naar erger. In een open brief noemde hij z’n vader een “verachtelijk mens” en “een schurk”. Zijn moeder overleed een paar jaar geleden en z’n huwelijk liep op de klippen. Maar uiteindelijk duurde het tot nu vooraleer hij nieuw werk schreef en — samen met de leden van New Yorkse indie folkband Woods — opnam, niet langer als Silver Jews maar onder de nieuwe naam Purple Mountains. David Berman is nooit het type songschrijver geweest die autobiografische elementen schuwt, en dat is ook hier niet het geval. Zijn strijd met depressies (“All My Happiness Is Gone”), het vervreemden van zijn vrouw en de scheiding (“She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”, “Darkness And Cold”), het heengaan van zijn moeder (“I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”), zijn mentale gezondheid (“Storyline Fever”), het zijn allemaal onderwerpen die Berman aankaart. Purple Mountains kan gezien worden als een autobiografisch relaas van Bermans lost decade. Soms doet de directheid van de teksten aan Mark Kozelek denken, zij het dan zonder diens soms tenenkrullende confidenties. Toch slaagt Berman er in om het album niet als een moeilijk verteerbare downer te laten klinken. Af en toe zit er immers wat humor in de teksten (of wat te denken van een tekstregel als “I nearly lost my genitalia / To an anthill in Des Moines”), en ook de muzikale omkadering draagt daaraan bij. Muzikaal ligt Purple Mountains in het verlengde van Silver Jews, al is het hier minder lo-fi dan op pakweg Silver Jews meesterwerk American Water. Opgewekte country in “That’s The Way I Feel”, snedige folk in “Darkness And Cold”, nergens voelt Purple Mountains aan als een droefgeestige klaagzang. Op “Snow Falling in Manhattan” drapeert een subtiele trompet een warme gloed over het nummer, een pedal steel zorgt op het mede door Dan Auerbach geschreven “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me” voor een honky tonk gevoel. Purple Mountains is het resultaat van een jonge vijftiger die de balans opmaakt van zijn leven, van een decennium waarin het lot hem niet altijd spaarde. Een portret van een artiest als een man van middelbare leeftijd. Het is evengoed de terugkeer van een uitmuntend songschrijver die toont dat hij na een lange inactiviteit nog altijd weet hoe te ontroeren. Een comeback met een grote “C”.