‘Purple Mountains’ Sounds Sadder Than Ever Two Years Later

Purple Mountains was David Berman’s gift to posterity.

Dropped in the summer of 2019, fans of Silver Jews were elated to hear from David Berman who’d been silent since disbanding the “Joos.” His uncanny ability to mix us a cocktail of poetry, snark, and deadpan wit, in matters both cultural and personal, was some of what made Berman our favorite heroically flawed indie deity. This new album, Purple Mountains, at first, felt like a Trump era lament. Until it sounded more and more like the good-bye it was. Two years and change later, Purple Mountains still pulls it all off; both the music and lyrics keep toes tapping and hearts breaking at once. 

The album kicks off with Berman confessing his signature self-consciousness for a few quiet seconds before cracking wide open. A handful of guitar licks introduce what becomes a jingle-jangle earworm. Lyrics like, “This time I think I finally fucked myself / You see, the life I live is sickening / I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion / Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in / I’m same old wreck I’ve always been,” sear the soul like a hot iron as the keyboard and horns rise and crash behind them in waves. Until Berman’s resigned voice repeats, “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting,” foreshadowing the remaining Purple Mountains experience. 

“All My Happiness is Gone,” “Margaritas at the Mall,” and “Storyline Fever” braid Berman’s poetry with the genre-bending instrumentation of Brooklyn psych-rock band, Woods. Each song explores the world as a grim mirror reflecting Berman’s own (and the world’s) failures. They’re all explicitly spiritually probing and hopeless, “How long can the world go on under such a subtle God?” or “Way deep down at some substratum/Feels like something really wrong has happened/And I confess, I’m barely hanging on.”

Synth-pop sits beside honky-tonk country sadness, fit for a dive bar juke box, on “She’s Making Friends,” “I’m Turning Stranger,” “Maybe I’m The Only One for Me,” and “Darkness and Cold.” The double-entendres, chiasmus’, and tropes are like a stand-up routine and an exercise in catharsis. Like, “If no one’s fond of fucking me / Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me” in “Maybe I’m The Only One for Me,” or in “Darkness and Cold,” melodic harmonica introduces the lines, “Light of my life is going out tonight / In a pink champagne Corvette / I sleep three feet above the street / In a Band-Aid pink Chevrette / Light of my life is going out tonight / Without a flicker of regret.” The somber and silly are the piercing signature of this album. 

Lush horns, steel guitar, and dreamy percussion carve out space for more straightforward lyrics on “Nights that Won’t Happen” and “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son.” The latter being the first song written for the album in 2016 when Berman’s mother passed. Warm and fuzzy sentiments swirl like flurries in a storm (a lá “Snow is Falling in Manhattan”) of grief as he recalls the fondness of their relationship, “She helped me walk, she watched me run / She got where I was coming from / And when I couldn’t count my friends on a single thumb/I loved her to the maximum.”

“Nights That Won’t Happen” shares a slowed down sensibility, but rather than turn toward the past, this chilling tune is a reckoning. “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind / When the here and the hereafter momentarily align / See the need to speed into the lead suddenly decline / The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind… And when the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides / All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” 

Purple Mountains investigates loss. When the album first dropped, it was like listening to David fill us in on his losses. After his passing, Purple Mountains morphed into a record of who we lost.  Since 2019, even more damages have accrued. 

At last count, nearly five million people have died from COVID-19, social media feeds make civil discourse look impossible, and recently, it was discovered that another 20 species of plants and animals have gone extinct. Purple Mountains, even in its debut album glory, is like curling up with an old friend who shares your existential dread. Listening is akin to being a confidant for the friend as he pours out his most private thoughts. I miss David Berman. 

Since his passing, the events of the world might not have brought him any closer to serenity. I’m selfish though; I want to hear his sardonic take and bob my head to music as emotive as his intimate lyrics. I want to feel comforted by our shared misery. Listening to Purple Mountains more than two years later feels sadder than ever.