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.
– New Release Reviews