Music Reviews
Purple Mountains

Purple Mountains Purple Mountains

(Drag City) Rating - 8/10

A lot has changed since David Berman released his last Silver Jews album, but time hasn't changed him. If you need an update on how he's been for the past eleven years, he clarifies any lingering doubts on the album opener to his new project Purple Mountains, That's Just the Way I Feel: "I'm the same old wreck I've always been." Berman always used self-deprecation as a narrative device to show off his sense of humor, even if there's now a surprising directness to his approach. A trait that you could never ascribe to him is moody, though, and he makes sure to sound as chipper as he can so he's not thought of as a figure of pity.

The number of reasons why Berman is unhappy is plenty—an estranged father, the end of his twenty-year marriage, and a marked discontent with his overall existence. Though these topics may seem complex, he seamlessly intertwines them with his singular perspective. It's simple to jump into any of his poetic musings, which come across like biting confessionals told by a close friend. And in a very peculiar way, he places his trust in you—"Feels like something really wrong has happened/And I confess I'm barely hanging on," he confesses on All My Happiness is Gone, revealing his struggles with depression over lightsome chamber pop.

With the help of Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earle (members of folk-rock lifers Woods), Berman adds his shabby, bone-dry baritone over wistful country-rock and ambling '70's singer-songwriter folk. A long list of stellar musicians have lent him a hand in years past, and Purple Mountains has no shortage of participants willing to color his woeful tales. "I see lots of normal men yearning to obtain her/I'm a loser, she's a gainer," he laments over some Irish fiddle on She's Making Friends, I'm Turning Stranger, bringing forth a loose, Basement Tapes groove that eventually fades out—even if you can imagine them jamming it out for twice the song's length. Whereas on the haunting Darkness and Cold, a sustained harmonica riff provides a sense of solace to his overactive imagination—as he wrestles with the fact that his ex-partner has moved on.

Throughout Purple Mountains, Berman makes it clear that he's the only one responsible for his constant self-blame. But he also channels his existential qualms with mordant sentiments. "We're just drinking margaritas at the mall/that's what this stuff adds to after all," he sings with defeat on Margaritas at the Mall, struck by the values of corporate commerce as he reluctantly accepts its everyday dominance. While on Nights that Won't Happen, he meditates on how death itself is futile, leaving those who've lost someone or something meaningful in their lives to carry the burden—whether it's the passing of loved ones or the loss of hope and courage.

Berman comes to terms with his failings on album closer Maybe I'm the Only One for Me, which might imply that he's feeding his self-worth—rather, it's his final opportunity to dwell on lessons learned. One might quickly assume through his plight that he's failed to evolve, expect that the truth he reveals through his songs, whether intentional or not, reveals something else: we never stop making mistakes, and we learn to deal with them. It's a new start for an artist who many had proclaimed early retirement. And even if he hasn't cheered up, his return does feel consistent with his downtrodden nature—and we can only listen as it all unfolds.