19 December 2019 | Blog

December 18 – December 24

Born into a dichotomous family in Williamsburg, Virginia, David Berman was almost destined to be a great poet and songwriter; having a mother he adored with all his being and a father who was a lobbyist for big alcohol and tobacco who he despised. While studying at the University of Virginia Berman started playing music with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich and would eventually go on to form the criminally underrated Indie-Rock band Silver Jews in 1989.

Releasing their debut album Starlite Walker in 1994, Silver Jews were an immediate cult favourite due to the interesting Folk and Alt-Country instrumentation and David’s knack for writing and delivering a story in such a way that implores the listener to relate. Berman and company went on to release an array of albums and EP’s with a rotating roster of musicians between their inception and 2009 when Berman called it off. Retiring from music stating that he wanted to attempt to find a way to undo some of the damage his father, Richard Berman had brought upon society through being an alcohol and tobacco lobbyist.

Fast forward 10 years; Berman hasn’t contributed to the music industry since Silver Jews final show in January 2009, nor has he been heard or seen by anyone outside of his close circles. Suddenly, without any previous indication, a song attached to a video called All My Happiness Is Gone was uploaded to the Drag City Records YouTube channel. Featuring Berman playing guitar and singing throughout the video, it seemed he was back; Silver Jews was dead and gone, but this marked a new chapter in the artist’s career: Purple Mountains.

Sharing the name with Berman’s blog, Purple Mountains eponymous debut and only studio album release is one of the most poignant, beautiful, and truest returns to form of the decade. Recorded by Berman and members of the Indie-Rock band Woods, the group had successfully contemporised the Silver Jews legacy. Overflowing with lush, beautiful guitar tones and rich instrumentation such as Organ, Harmonica and Trumpet as well as David’s signature wit and style of storytelling, Purple Mountains is a refreshing, harrowingly beautiful slice of life. Taking the same left-field Indie-Rock flavours of Silver Jews whilst incorporating elements of Blues, Alt-Country and Piano Rock, with Berman’s lyrical content essentially focusing on his life since the disbandment of his first band. Addressing issues such as sobriety, love, loneliness and the struggle to keep going, it doesn’t take long to realise David had been struggling with treatment resistant depression for a very long time.

The album starts with the irreverent That’s Just The Way I Feel, as janky Church organs linger in the background with Berman singing: “Well, I don’t like talkin’ to myself, but someone’s gotta say it, hell I mean, things have not been going well this time I think I finally f***** myself”, the record makes its intentions clear from the get go. Following this we get the two lead singles All My Happiness Is Gone and Darkness and Cold, two of the more on the nose songs in the track list, having their titles effectively summarising the lyrical content of them. We then get several tracks referencing David’s ex-wife Cassie Berman such as Margaritas at the Mall and She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger which both show Berman desperately wanting to be a better person for the people in his life, but not knowing how.

The final four cuts on the album act as some of the most despondent, the first of which being I Loved Being My Mother’s Son, a gorgeous ballad with David lamenting on his love and appreciation for his mother, while simultaneously despising his estranged father. Nights That Won’t Happen is easily the most harrowing track on the album, referencing two different stages of grief people often find themselves in wishing the person they lost would come back, or that they could be with their loved one in oblivion: “And as much as we might like to seize the reel and hit rewind, or quicken our pursuit of what we’re guaranteed to find”.

The album is brought full circle with the final two tracks, Storyline Fever and Maybe I’m The Only One For Me being two of the most upbeat instrumentally while still maintaining Berman’s lethargic wit, the line “If no one’s fond of f****** me, maybe no one’s f****** fond of me” being an exquisite example of such. Less than a month after the release of Purple Mountains tragedy struck, as David Berman took his own life. What shouldn’t have been a surprise due to the many themes of giving up littered throughout the album, caught a lot of people, myself included, off guard. A reminder that no matter how beautiful life may be, it is also equally as fragile: tell your friends you love them, tell your family you love them, live everyday with childlike wanderlust and enjoy every moment you can.

This album is a reminder that even in the hardest, most trying parts of life, there is beauty to be found, even in death. Much like Berman’s early family life, Purple Mountains acts as a dichotomy between Berman’s witty, saddening and lethargic lyrics and the gorgeous, full instrumentation and production of the record. If you listen to one album before this year and decade are over: let it be this one.