Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains Review

The Wall Street Journal
July 10, 2019

David Berman, who once fronted the indie rock outfit Silver Jews, is the kind of artist whose lyrics you notice first.

He’s written his share of memorable melodies, and the loose, countrified ramble of his band’s records provides plenty to appreciate on a purely musical level. And Mr. Berman’s singing voice, while of limited range, is distinctive, deep and weary but also amused by it all, as he delivers off-kilter jokes with a twinkle of wisdom. 

But it’s Mr. Berman’s words—surreally hilarious, frequently sad, and often packed with psychological insight—that are his songs’ star attraction. They offer tiny moments of revelation that can heighten your senses and help you notice details in your surroundings that you might have missed.

It’s been a while since we have heard new material from him. In 2009, after six albums, Silver Jews called it quits under mysterious circumstances, and Mr. Berman disappeared from view until word emerged of a new project earlier this year.

Purple Mountains, Mr. Berman’s new band, whose self-titled debut is out Friday on Drag City, picks up where his earlier group left off. The production is a bit more ornate and the songs reflect another decade of hard living, but this is a Silver Jews record in all but name, and a very good one. 

In 1999, Mr. Berman published a highly regarded volume of verse that drew praise from poet James Tate and others, and he writes with an eye for the telling detail. He’s also expressed admiration for the economy and humor of country songwriting, and in 2001 he penned a number about moving to Nashville to “make a career out of writing sad songs, getting paid by the tear.”

Some of the observations and situations on “Purple Mountains” sound like fodder for a honky-tonk weepfest. “When I try to drown my thoughts in gin / I find my worst ideas know how to swim” goes one couplet in the album’s first track, “That’s Just the Way That I Feel.” 

Mr. Berman writes of losers who believed they had everything figured out, of wasted potential, of taking good fortune for granted and then looking back and wondering where it all went wrong. “Ten-thousand afternoons ago, all my happiness just overflowed,” he sings on “All My Happiness Is Gone.” “That was life at first and goal to go.” The football metaphor speaks to youthful hubris: No matter how badly you screw up, it would seem, you’ll still put some points on the board. But sometimes life has other plans. 

“Purple Mountains” was produced by Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earle of the rootsy indie rock band Woods, and they extend and enrich the sound of Mr. Berman’s earlier records without altering it appreciably. “All My Happiness Is Gone” has orchestral backing provided by a Mellotron; acoustic guitars are prominent throughout the record; there are touches of piano, organ, and pedal steel. The arrangements support the songs while staying out of the way. 

Mr. Berman has a knack for thinking of phrases that shouldn’t work in songs, but do. “I’ve drawn up all my findings and I warn you they are candid” begins “Margaritas at the Mall,” one of the record’s highlights. It sounds like a kickoff to a slideshow presenting a quarterly earnings report, but Mr. Berman begins a tale that finds his characters escaping the apparent pointlessness of life by quaffing electric-colored intoxicants in a suburban dive.

In “Storyline Fever,” an exasperated look at political extremism in the age of media saturation, is another image that could have come from no one else: “Gotta combover cut circa Abscam sting.” It’s a reference to the con artist Mel Weinberg, who inspired Christian Bale’s character in the film “American Hustle.” If you are on Mr. Berman’s wavelength, it offers a visual cue and suggesting a character’s motivation in just a few words. 

While Mr. Berman’s lyrics are often very funny, they are ultimately the slightly desperate wisecracks of a deeply sad person trying to cheer himself up by making light of what befalls him. The lives at the center of these narratives are tragic, filled with death and hopelessness and dreams of better days. 

The relentless self-laceration lets up only occasionally. The disarmingly sweet “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is as straightforward as anything Mr. Berman has released. And “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan” is a powerful tribute to the idea that music, if it finds you at just the right moment, can save your life: “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.”

On “Purple Mountains,” Mr. Berman is that ghost, and he’s a generous one. His work offers relief. By sharing his stories of characters at the margins who laugh into the void, life’s absurdities seem less menacing, and existential loneliness becomes a setup for a punchline.