by Max Kaplan (@kapslock3)
As far as unsettling comeback singles go, “All My Happiness Is Gone” ranks among some of the all-time wincers. David Berman hasn’t released an album since 2008. Meanwhile, Internet music communities have become echo chambers of unbridled joy and opinion every time an artist reemerges from the depths. This May, discussion boards seemed to knot up with a sort of bittersweet exaltation upon hearing David Berman’s first new solo release of the decade, backed now by members of the Brooklyn band Woods.
Remember a couple years ago when Kanye opened Ye with ‘I Thought About Killing You’ by saying “I think about killing myself. And I love myself way more than I love you…?” Take that, but filtered through the collective unease of several hundred aging Silver Jews Stans. David Berman (now looking more like Bret Gelman than a young Chevy Chase) sings, “Way deep down at some substratum, feels like something really wrong has happened. And I confess I’m barely hanging on.” The difference in the two heart-on-the-sleeve declarations is that Ye’s confession was met with millions of head scratches, while Berman’s spurred a mixed bag of excitement and concern for the return of one of indie rock’s most adored songwriters.
No longer writing and recording under the Silver Jews moniker—a joke band name conceived by Berman and UVA bud Stephen Malkmus—Berman made his reappearance as Purple Mountains, following a decade which included a divorce from his wife (and bandmate) Cassie and the passing of his mother. If fear of turning into a careerist prompted his early retirement, then the coalescence offered through expression brought him back around.
Purple Mountains is a record written by a man with his back against the wall. While it’s truly hard to not feel for Berman on this album, it’s a small consolation that he retains his singular brand of irony at times. Always morose and caustic, Berman returns more devastating than ever. With this offering, he’s penned ten of his most direct songs, among them, some his best.
These songs don’t know if they belong on a breakup, grief, or depression album, and they’re all the better for their conflation of all. And If you needed a refresher on the world of David Berman, don’t sweat it too much, because “That’s Just the Way That I Feel” fills us in the 10-year hiatus in just three gloomy minutes. While the rest of us were becoming addicted to our smartphones and riding out the peaks and pits of our political morass, Berman spent the decade “playing chicken with oblivion,” indulging in “ceaseless feasts of schadenfreude,” and trying to drown his thoughts in gin. Along the way, he “met failure in Australia, fell ill in Illinois,” and endured some episode involving losing his genitalia in an anthill. Beneath all the bitching and bickering, he concludes that the “end of all wanting” is all that he’s been wanting. Some way to start a comeback record…
If working through personal issues by creating music and art is a prescribed form of therapy, it’s supposed be freeing, right? We spend so long collecting songs that get us though breakups and help us grieve, and as a listener, try to empathize with the songwriter in order to ultimately glean something from their experience and lean on it as a source of comfort. The David Berman that wrote Purple Mountains doesn’t seem to speak to any of this counsel. In fact, most of this record is a direct, unflinching affirmation of his despair. As Berman will be the first to admit on track three, these are songs informed by darkness and cold, and there’s no way around it.
Purple Mountains is full of moments that are uncomfortable, but they’re not out to make you feel uncomfortable. Lyrically, Berman’s writing is more cutting and autobiographical than it was in his Silver Jews oeuvre. So after living through serious bouts of drug abuse, severe depression, and a divorce, Berman’s candidness feels like something he has no choice but to embrace.
For anyone who may “miss the old David” of earlier work, Purple Mountains still bears the vivid imagery and peculiar wordplay that Berman’s known for. On “Margaritas at the Mall,” with the same foreboding twang of the best Silver Jews songs, Berman sings “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.” Marinate on that one for a second. On “Storyline Fever,” the grooviest song on the album, Berman dwells on his career’s trajectory, sprinkling in some comedic relief before side two wraps up. “Got a comb over circa Abscam King. Make a better Larry than Lizard King.”
It’s with “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” that Purple Mountains comes to an end, and it’s one that comes about 350 degrees from where the album started. There’s no warm reunions or epiphanies, just the same lonely guy who started the album off announcing that he doesn’t like talking to himself. 45 minutes later, with plenty of talking in between, Berman lays out his resolution: “I’ll put my dreams high on a shelf. I’ll have to learn to like myself. Maybe I’m the only one for me.” Not too uplifting, but at least he’s presenting himself in the future tense now. Berman’s never been the callous, detached type. Things like seeing happy couples in public pain him, only allowing the loneliness in the minutiae littered all around him to be amplified. With Purple Mountains, Berman opens the windows on lonely scenes like this taking place all over America and allows the cold air to come through. If you’re shivering, at least you feel it.