One of the most brilliantly sardonic voices in indie rock has risen like a phoenix from the ashtray.
David Berman hung up his musician hat in 2009 with the retirement of his beloved band, the Silver Jews. After facing the demons of his anti-humanitarian lobbyist dad, Richard Berman, and the collapse of his marriage to longtime collaborator Cassie Berman, he’s returned with the new moniker Purple Mountains. On this stunning comeback album, he’s given the terminally depressed a set of anthems to seek solace in together. It sounds as if not a moment has passed since Silver Jews’ 2008 swan song, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea.
As he explained in an enlightening, emotional podcast interview with Vish Khanna, Berman originally set out to record with Destroyer’s Dan Bejar in a secluded studio near Vancouver Island. Sadly, that version remains on the cutting room floor, but he found a perfect cast of collaborators in New York psych band Woods. It’d be easy to overlook the instrumentation with Berman’s lyrics pushed so far to the forefront, but the band bring lush country-rock arrangements, extended jam outros and high backing vocals straight out of their cover of Graham Nash’s Military Madness.
Berman’s long-awaited return has occurred at the same time as that of Bill Callahan, another hangdog musical luminary and his Drag City label mate. However, while Callahan’s 2019 double album Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest finds him presenting a carefully curated appearance as a domesticated family man, Berman has never sounded more honest about his seclusion. In a heartbreaking profile on The Ringer, he explains how his former addictions followed by 10 years at home reading Reddit inspired him to leave surreal imagery behind: “I don’t want to throw people off anymore. I don’t want to bullshit. I want to mean.”
Purple Mountains’ sad-sack songs like Maybe I’m The Only One For Me and She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger could be seen as cries for help on the level of A Mighty Wind’s fictional folksinger Mitch Cohen. Yet Berman’s sense of humour persists with Edgar Allen Poe-style internal rhymes. “The end of all wanting/is all I’ve been wanting.” “See the plod of the flawed individual looking for a nod from God.” “If no one’s fond of fucking me/Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.”
All My Happiness Is Gone brings dreamy washes of mellotron and a classic Berman opening salvo: “Friends are warmer than gold/when you’re old.” In even more signature fashion, Margaritas At The Mall reckons with the religious beliefs he’s explored since the 2007 documentary Silver Jew, following his pilgrimage to Israel.
I Loved Being My Mother’s Son is a swooning eulogy that throws back to one of the Silver Jews’ most popular songs, Punks In The Beerlight. On the sprightly album highlight Storyline Fever, a twee riff and steady tambourine propel Berman’s recognition of the self-created narratives that have haunted his dark nights of the soul. Of course, he can’t help but get up to his old tricks, delivering this epiphany with self-deprecation and obscure cultural references. “Got a comb-over cut circa ABSCAM sting/Make a better Larry than Lizard King.”
As the song hits its apex on the album’s most meta moment, Berman finally discovers his life’s purpose: to cut himself down while pointing to brighter days ahead. “When you’re seller and commodity/you’ve got to sell yourself immodestly/turn your pedestal into a carving board/if that’s what the audience is starving for.”
Beyond the amber waves of grain, Purple Mountains offer fans a feast of food for thought.
Top track: All My Happiness Is Gone
Purple Mountains play Lee’s Palace on August 27. See listing.