David Berman’s ‘Purple Mountains’ Is a Welcome Return From an Old Master
If you don’t like Silver Jews, I’d never try to convince you that you’re wrong. Hell, I hardly like Silver Jews, and I love Silver Jews. David Berman sings like his fingers are being mashed in a door. His compositions are handy but unextraordinary, all slouching harmonies and basic open chords. He isn’t an aspirational figure, unless you’re someone who reads the book of Job and thinks, “that sounds chill.” None of this is anything that indie-rock’s Salinger of self-doubt wouldn’t tell you himself. He’s always been his own smallest fan.
Berman’s lyrics deserve their stellar reputation; writers risk spending their whole word counts quoting favorites. His sole book, 1999’s Actual Air, was a minor sensation in small-press poetry. But no matter how odd, funny, and poignant they are, postmodern pastoral aphorisms alone can’t account for the gulf between his admittedly modest musical gifts and his cultish esteem. His wonderful if mortifying self-titled debut as Purple Mountains is his first record since he retired Silver Jews ten years ago, and probably his best by conventional standards. But the uninitiated still might be a little mystified by the raptures around this obscure, shabby character’s comeback.
In his return to music, Berman has been greeted like Huck Finn showing up at his own funeral, “a ruin of drooping rags.” The coverage has had an unusually personal flavor, with major publications acting like he’s a close friend they’ve been worried about and worrying about his comfort on a first-name basis. Who can blame them, when he’s pumping so much grist into the mill? For a mysterious recluse who seldom performs or gives interviews, he sure has proven to be disclosive—a genial, self-aware mess volunteering his prayer and masturbation habits to journalists. But that’s just how Bermania goes, a reciprocal unwarranted familiarity, a mutual valorization of shame and defeat.
If you’re wondering where he’s been, that’s easy. The first song on Purple Mountains, released by his longtime label, Drag City, is here to help. “That’s Just the Way I Feel,” one of those Berman songs that puts the honky in honky-tonk, is a chipper account of a decade spent “playing chicken with oblivion.” He’s been losing his faith and his marriage, both of which saved him, but only for a while. He’s been depressed, wallowing in the scorn of imagined enemies. He’s been drowning his thoughts in gin. He’s the same old mess he’s always been, and while he still makes room for the stray punch line (“Lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go” is the keeper), he’s staring into the black sun of himself more directly than ever before.
But if you’re wondering who Berman is—well, it’s a lot. The alcohol and crack addiction, the humiliations and failures, they’re all on the record and in the music, which began about thirty years ago, when he formed Silver Jews with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. Their four-track fuckery produced Silver Jews’ 1994 debut Starlite Walker, which sounds a bit like a cowboy-core Pavement, the more-famous band that Malkmus and Nastanovich started around the same time. After Berman’s buds left him for Lollapalooza, he moseyed into his own style of tender, sinister, tumbledown campfire songs that were perfectly suited to an indie-rock era when people were suspicious of any music they couldn’t make in their own basements.
In 1996, The Natural Bridge had Berman’s first great songs in “How to Rent a Room” and “Pet Politics;” two years later, the beloved and bedrugged American Water canonized “Random Rules” and “Smith and Jones Forever.” But Purple Mountains most resembles the countrypolitan squalor of 2001’s Bright Flight, my favorite, where Berman stopped squinting at the country music of his Dallas childhood through a scrim of sere psychedelia and just made the damn stuff. On 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers, while coming down from that peak of musical and lyrical confidence, he was solid, clean and buoyed by his marriage to new bandmate Cassie Marrett. But by 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, he was washed, a year away from ending Silver Jews and going to ground.
Purple Mountains was produced and accompanied by Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earle of Woods, with eight other musicians filling the gaps. The arrangements, some of the most gracious Berman’s ever had, hum and glow with foggy organs and soft golden horns. Their serenity is at odds with his desperation: This is a portrait of a shattered man. He pines for his ex, who’s out having fun. He misses his mother. He hates his father. On “Nights That Won’t Happen,” he seems to gently contemplate suicide, not necessarily as something he’s going to do, more like someone wistfully thinking about a vacation he can’t afford. He’s not picking up the pieces, he’s cataloging where they fell on the ground, and he’s doing it at eye level. More than twenty years after American Water, Berman’s rules are still random; his music is a meandering map of a life without guideposts. All of this should make you want to look away, but obviously, we don’t. Usually, people inspire us because they grow and transcend themselves. Berman doesn’t (“The dead do not improve,” as he had it on “Tennessee”), but he keeps going anyway.
His already low voice is starting to Cohen, a verb meaning “to sink under its own weight with time,” which the next generation will know as Callahanning. His presence is Callahanning, too, as he pares his famous wordplay away from a core of profound simplicity. There’s still plenty of verbal dexterity: On “Darkness and Cold,” the line “light of my life is going out tonight” ties up Cassie Marrett the person, the role she plays in Berman’s life, and the sun going down as she meets new people while he’s at home alone, in one head-shakingly clever triple entendre. But you can detect a new clarity even in the declarative titles of the most beautiful songs, like “All My Happiness Is Gone” and “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan,” the record’s most artful moment, where Berman makes trochaic tetrameter straight out of Longfellow sound at once conversationally spry and intricately fashioned. He’s always so good with how snow falls, like when he blew it through the baseboard outlets of the surreal apocalyptic prophecy of “Time Will Break the World.”
That’s one of my favorite Silver Jews songs ever, but the line about tanning beds exploding with rich women inside makes me wince in 2019, as does the way Berman instrumentalizes and projects on his ex throughout Purple Mountains, which is old-fashioned in some good ways and some off-putting ones. Let’s be real: There’s more to the excitement among white men of a certain age than the quality of the record. If you’ll permit me a personal moment—this is a David Berman review, after all—back in the day, I was all in on Silver Jews. I drank the Kool-Aid. Bought the T-shirt. Really, it was at the Chapel Hill stop of the rare mid-aughties tour; it was clean-baby pink and said “peace,” with a dove on it. It was the tail end of my arch indie-lord phase, when real music sounded like shit, and the leading edge of my poptimist-backlash phase, when real shit sounded like music.
From the other side of all that, I can see Silver Jews for what it is: something I loved when I didn’t mind the tortured-white-male-everyman-genius archetype like I do now—a time, in fact, when I strongly identified with it. I can’t hear Berman without thinking about something that never occurred to me then: how his just-like-us appeal really means just like me, with the cultural privilege to be a mess and to fail, to be average and adored for it, to retain a foothold in the music industry no matter how hard he tries to slip. None of that takes away from Purple Mountains’ splendor, but it does make me aware that I don’t identify with Berman’s idiom as I once did, and that’s probably a good thing. Judging from the coverage, I’m not the only one who feels an unseemly tug in the music, something maybe to resist a little. We don’t need him to be a genius anymore—a batch of terrific songs will do just fine.