Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains: New Music Review

The saddest story in popular music this year probably belonged to David Berman. The former leader of Silver Jews had taken a ten year hiatus from music, during which he sought to undo the damage to society caused by his father, a prominent alcohol and tobacco lobbyist. Berman also had other struggles, losing his mother, separated from his wife and facing substantial credit card debt, but emerged with the acclaimed Purple Mountains album in July 2019.

While I’d heard of Silver Jews through their association with Pavement, I’d never listened to Berman’s music until after his passing in August 2019. While Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich were initially part of Silver Jews in the early 1990s, Berman’s music is closer to alt-country – Berman’s doleful voice sometimes recalls Townes Van Zandt.

Berman tried working with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, but eventually recorded with Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl of Brooklyn folk-rock band Woods. Purple Mountains isn’t about hooks – it’s more about Berman’s emotionally naked story telling.

Berman’s songs dissect the recent events in his life – losing his mother in ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’, and his estrangement from his wife on ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’. Sometimes Purple Mountains is unbearably raw – on ‘Nights That Won’t Happen’, Berman sings “All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.”

Because there are nine sadly restrained songs, the bouncy tune stands out – ‘Storyline Fever’ has a lively guitar hook, and Berman’s singing is more animated – “You got storyline fever, storyline flu/It’s filtering how everything looks to you.”

I didn’t have any connection to Berman’s music before his death, but I imagine it’s difficult for long-term fans to listen to. I would have hoped that getting these stories down on paper would have helped Berman, but Purple Mountains is like listening to an extended suicide note. It’s deservedly regarded as one of the best records released this year, but it makes for uncomfortable listening.

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    • Yup, there are a lot of deep-seated issues that he’s wrestling with, and it’s pretty horrible. That video I posted for ‘Darkness and Cold’ is even darker in its foreshadowing, I think.

    • I’ve been thinking about making a list, but covering one new release per week, it’s taking me a long time to go through all the new releases I’m interested in. I think this record would probably just miss out on my top ten, but it’s still very good. Are you a Silver Jews fan, or new to Berman?

      • Well here’s the funny thing, I’ve never heard of this album before yesterday. But one of the guys doing a list sent me a revision yesterday. He knocked Springsteen off his list in favour of Purple Mountains! So obviously that caught my attention!

  1. I remember when it happened and I looked some of his music up…I didn’t know any of it until then, unfortunately. I agree it’s uncomfortable to listen to… someone baring it all and knowing the end.
    Saying that… I do like it.

    • I don’t know any of his other stuff, but I guess I should go back and listen sometime. This one was getting a lot of attention before his passing – it’s also a comeback after ten years of silence, but it’s very good as well.

  2. One of the year’s best. I was a big fan of Berman and was very enthusiastic when I learned new music was coming.
    It’s an exceptional record. Beautiful. Weighty. Berman at his best. However, I had to put it down for a while cause it got too weighty. Especially given how events unfolded.
    It’s a remarkable album, though.

  3. I noticed this album made various music top 10 lists, so I got curious and listened to it. While I can’t say it’s love at first sight, there is something to it.
    I had no idea about the tragic background story. This does make it quite heavy. Knowing that, the first video you posted is almost painful to watch.

  4. Thank you very much for this great post! I really enjoyed reading it! I have recently started a music review series on my blog which involves a variety of aspects such as feature articles and album reviews. If you have time, it would be great if you could check out my series as I would be really interested to hear your thoughts! Thanks 🙂

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