Berman’s Brave New World
by Jericho Cerrona
In 2009, David Berman quit music. As a cult icon fronting lo-fi indie group Silver Jews in the 90s and 2000s, the man could have kept making albums (along with a book of cartoons, documentaries, and poetry), but instead, he spent a decade going after his corporate father, Richard Berman. Within the familial discord there was also reflection, loss, martial strife, and a rekindled love of reading. As a purveyor of bummed out poeticism, Berman’s work sits nicely alongside troubadours such as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Bill Callahan. Like those artists, Berman weaves narratives rife with malaise and the idea of being fucked by the universe. He’s also self-aware, and at times, very funny.
There’s a full band this time out utilizing members of psych rock group Woods to fill out the rustic sound, and the results are more lush and orchestral than anything in Silver Jews’s back catalog. Still, despite the sonic upgrade, this is sad bastard music. Kicking a prolific drug addiction, conversion to Judaism, a failed marriage, the death of his mother; Berman’s life over the past decade has been almost as scattered as previous decades, but Purple Mountains finds a surprising vulnerability amidst the pain.
Make no mistake, Berman is still as depressed as ever, but there’s an openness here which finds the singer-songwriter unfurling a laundry list of foibles and insecurities without ever coming across misanthropic. Our failures are what makes us human, and Berman is a canny enough songwriter to match that notion with jaunty melodies. One might even mistake opener “That’s Just The Way That I Feel” for an upbeat riot; with its honky-tonk piano, saloon organ, and rollicking groove, but the lyrics depict a man in complete free-fall. Things have not been going well/ This time I think I finally fucked myself Berman sings in his gravely croon, and when he laments When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/ I find my worst ideas know how to swim, we are fully in the realm of a psychological spiral.
The largest weight on Berman’s fragile heart is his disintegrated marriage to Cassie Marrett, who was part of the Silver Jews touring band back in the mid 2000s and whom Berman claims saved his life. Marrett was by his side through some of his darkest days; including suicide attempts and heroin addiction, and this union seems to have set him on a more hopeful path. However, as evidenced by the bittersweet ballad “All My Happiness is Gone”, the gulf between them has become insurmountable. With mordant wit, Berman dictates a scene where his estranged lover is moving on while making new friends as he watches placidly. This is a genuine vision of an introvert; someone who doesn’t want to alienate those around him, but can’t help but feel insignificant in the company of so many bright faces. On “Darkness in Cold”, this sentiment comes full circle with the realization that his wife is going out with a new beau as he looks on in resignation. There’s never a sense that Berman is shaming the woman he loves or even disapproving of her actions. Rather, he berates himself for not being able to make her happy with lines like she kept it burning longer than I had right to expect.
To say Purple Mountains is simply about Berman’s struggle with a failed relationship is reductive, though, since the first foray into writing again post Silver Jews was brought about by the death of his mother. The utterly gorgeous “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is a prime example of this; a direct elegy for the one person who knew him best. Berman never allows his lyrics to become saccharine, even as the Americana stylings of the instrumental give off an almost uplifting vibe. It’s a mournful song, to be sure, but it also transcends so many confessional ballads dealing with deceased loved ones in that it nails the absurdity of existence to begin with. The futility of mortality is examined even further on “Nights That Won’t Happen”, a slow tempo bummer that, according to Berman, details his regrets of not being there for a drug addict friend before he passed away. Truthfully, death haunts nearly every song here; the inevitability of it, the depression regarding aging, and the idea that all one’s accomplishments will be lost to time.
Whatever the case, there’s no question that Purple Mountains will not suffer such a fate, resting triumphantly alongside the best Silver Jews albums. It’s a Berman creation through and through; sardonic, playful, sad, funny, and brimming with fractured narrative vignettes. Through all the pain and defeat, there’s a sense that Berman is transitioning into a new phase. When he sings If no one's fond of fucking me/ Maybe no one's fucking fond of me on closer ”Maybe I’m the Only One For Me”, it’s less dictating an ideology than it is about self-acceptance. Berman isn’t asking anyone to feel sorry for him because he isn’t feeling sorry for himself, and for all its downbeat introspection, Purple Mountains ultimately emerges as the ultimate “self-care” album.