About 30 seconds into the opener of his new eponymous record as Purple Mountains, indie rock veteran David Berman offers a little update on his situation: “I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been.”
Berman has always had that gift of putting his emotional instability into context with his neurotic, grim wit. It’s the sort of gift that results in a brilliantly iconic line like the first lyric of Silver Jews’ 1998 gem, American Water, which goes: “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” delivered with the tossed-off candor of someone shooting the shit with his friends.
Then again, a gift like that comes at a cost. Berman’s increasingly erratic, self-destructive behavior culminated in a suicide attempt in 2003. In 2009, he ended his Silver Jews outfit for good, feeling that his music was helpless in the face of his corporate lobbyist father, nicknamed “Dr. Evil.” What followed was a series of gut punches: a separation from his wife Cassie and the death of his mom in 2016.
With the circumstances of Berman’s life, it may be a miracle that we’re hearing Purple Mountains at all. Yet, like all the best of his work, the record distills his grief and pain into a brilliant comeback record that’s profound but never heavy.
With backing from Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Tavernier of Woods, the record sounds fantastic, with brass, strings, and organ all adorning Berman’s increasingly acerbic voice. The pedal-steel and horns on “Margaritas at the Mall” are vibrant, as the song explores capitalism as a sort of purgatory. On “Darkness of Cold,” he sulks as his ex-wife goes out with another man, mocked by the backing vocals. The nocturnal chimes add a ghostly beauty to “Nights That Won’t Happen,” one of the softest, most beautiful songs here.
Surprisingly, there’s a wealth of uptempo rockers here. The aforementioned opener, “That’s Just The Way I Feel,” is filled with plinking, honky-tonk pianos, as Berman spirals in his loneliness. “All My Happiness Is Gone” bursts out of the gate with an organ blast that reminds me of Camera Obscura, settling into a steady rhythm as it builds onwards.
At the heart of Purple Mountains lies maybe the simplest, most explicit song Berman has ever written. An ode to his late mother, “I Love Being My Mother’s Son” is a marked shift of tone from the furious, helpless screed of “My Father, The Attack Dog.”
After her passing, Berman says that he decided to pick up a guitar again to feel it in his chest, strumming the song’s eventual notes. It’s a gentle song, filled with a love so pure and elemental that it couldn’t be anything but sincere. Throughout the record, Berman exists in a state of exhausted agitation. Here, in the face of the death of the woman who raised him, he finally sounds at peace.