David Berman knew a thing or two about weaving lyrical beauty from the frayed threads of heartbreak. As the founder and driving force behind New York indie-folk outfit Silver Jews, the haggard-looking Berman spent twenty years delivering scrappy, deeply-affecting songs rife with a rugged pathos and brutal honesty. At the time of his sudden, tragic passing in August, his fans and contemporaries rightly hailed him as one of the most gifted, poetic songwriters of his generation.
After his band’s dissolution, Berman embarked on a decade-plus hiatus from music. During that time, he experienced plenty of family turmoil, separating from his wife Cassie and fighting to right the wrongs committed by estranged gun-lobbyist dad Richard. By 2019, he’d seen a whole record’s worth of sadness and hurt.
Purple Mountains, released a mere month before Berman left this world, is a fitting final hurrah: 10 perfectly-crafted songs, each one its own miniature songwriting masterclass, a decalogue of loss, love, and love lost.
The record benefits additionally from a fruitful collaboration between Berman and eternally-reliable Brooklyn psych-folkies Woods—band co-founders Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere serve as backing ensemble and producers. This blessed meeting of the minds endows each track with the ragged charm and warmth of a great bar band.
Right from the outset, Berman is keen to let us know that things haven’t been going so great. On “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” a booze-soaked, gloriously bummed-out honky-tonk number rife with gripping blasts of piano and organ, he examines his own “sickening” life and the endless grind and terror of depression that plagues him: “When I try to drown my thoughts in gin / I find my worst ideas know how to swim.”
There’s no hiding it: Berman is getting older, sinking deeper into depression and isolation from friends and family, and the sadness follows him no matter where he goes. It stings, especially in hindsight, to listen to him battling his demons in real time. These feelings dominate the record, resulting in some of the most devastating works in the songwriter’s repertoire—from the Mellotron-driven “All My Happiness is Gone” to the Grateful Dead-flavored paranoia of “Storyline Fever.” His low, detached, slightly off-key sad-sack growl of a voice simultaneously brings to light the pain in his heart and his attempts to laugh through it.
That’s another key theme within Purple Mountains: the search for the good in an overwhelming sea of negatives, the balancing of tragedy with subtle hilarity. Most of the tunes are strikingly, disarmingly upbeat in contrast to their woebegone subject matter. Sure, “Margaritas at the Mall,” with its dusty mariachi horns and moaning pedal steel, is a grim, apocalyptic dirge about loss of faith. But at the same time, it’s impossible not to crack a smile at a line like “See the plod of the flawed individual looking for a nod from God / Trodding the sod of the visible, with no new word from God.”
A few tracks explore the relationship between Berman and his wife, who remained close despite their separation. On “Darkness and Cold” He expertly employs double meanings in telling of the “weather of forever retaking control” of his heart in her absence. “The light of my life is going out tonight / With someone she just met,” he sings, augmented by Earl’s falsetto backing vocals and a lonesome harmonica. “The light of my life is going out tonight / Without a flicker of regret.”
Bittersweet torch tune “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger” highlights their vastly different personalities—hers gregarious, his rarely even “tantamount to cordial”—but ends with him declaring: “God knows I’d never try to change her / She’s my friend and I’m her stranger.”
Even without the added context of Berman’s death, the specter of mortality haunts this record. The wistful “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” finds him wrestling with the loss of his “faithful guardian.” When loved ones pass on, he realizes, they no longer belong to us, nor we to them–regardless of whether we’re prepared to lose them. (“I wasn’t done being my mother’s son / Only now am I seeing that being’s done.”) This idea continues into subdued epic “Nights That Won’t Happen,” wherein Berman channels Emily Dickinson (“This world is like a roadside inn and we’re the guests inside / And death is a black camel that kneels down so we can ride.”)
Closing track “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” finds our intrepid narrator coming to terms with one last inconvenient truth. Namely, there really isn’t someone for everyone, and many of us will wind up alone, so we might as well learn to enjoy our own company before seeking out another person to complete us. The song doubles as a snide, withering admonition to the culture of the incel—the embittered, toxic subset of men who mistakenly believe the universe owes them sex. “If no one’s fond of fuckin’ me,” Berman flatly states, “then maybe no one’s fuckin’ fond of me.”
Purple Mountains is a pensive, delicately woven, shatteringly lovely set of tapestries. It’s a grand last testament to its author’s knack for putting words to the pain in every human heart, for writing songs that made you feel you were looking into his soul. The final stanza of “Snow is Falling in Manhattan”—which paints a melancholy, wintry still-life over its six lush minutes—sounds now like something of a self-penned eulogy. “Songs build little rooms in time / And housed inside the song’s design/ Is the ghost the host has left behind / To greet and sweep the guest inside.” May the rooms David Berman built us keep us warm and safe forever.