Welcome back, David Berman, a literary indie-rock great who’s been gone way too long. Berman’s debut with his new band Purple Mountains is his first release since retiring his beloved band the Silver Jews eleven years ago. When the SJs first appeared in the early Nineties, they first struck people as a sideband for Berman’s Charlottesville, Va buddy Stephen Malkmus, who played guitar and added vocals to Berman’s songs. But as the band kept releasing records it became clear the real story was Berman’s insane gifts as a lyricist — his liquid imagery, minimalist lowbrow realism and cagey deadpan miserablism, especially on 1998’s astonishing American Water, the rare rock album where the lyrics looked as good on the page as they sounded in the songs. There were plenty of sad guys with overstuffed bookshelves roaming the hinterland back then, but not many writing lyrics as good as, “I wrote a letter to a wildflower/On a classic nitrogen afternoon/Some power that hardly looked like power/Said I’m only perfect in an empty room” or “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.”
Berman hasn’t exactly been out in the world living his best life during his time off from music: “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion,” he sings over honky tonk piano on Purple Mountains’ opener “That’s Just the Way That I Feel.” What follows is a uniquely grizzly breakup album, depressed but resiliently clinging to a desire to see what possibilities might lurk past the next heartache; it’s emotionally bare-knuckled even by the high standard of a guy who once began an LP singing, “I don’t really wan to die/I only wanna die in your eyes/I’m still here below the chandelier where they always used to read us our rights.”
At the center of Purple Mountains is the absence left after Berman’s split with his wife Cassie, who played bass on the Silver Jews’ last album, 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, and shared a brightening chemistry with Berman onstage. As relationship autopsies go some of this stuff makes Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights sound like the Three’s Company Theme: “she kept it burning longer than i had a right to expect/Light of my life is going out tonight without a flicker of regret,” he sings on the downheartedly lovely highlight “Darkness and Cold,” sounding a little like Tunnel of Love-era Bruce Springsteen with a gun his mouth. In the song’s Berman-directed video, the real-life Cassie gets ready to go out while he sulks around his actual apartment singing the song’s lyrics into a mic in a zombie karaoke performance.
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The dire circumstances might be one reason Berman’s writing is often more direct and less showily poetic than on his earliest LPs, suggesting an admirably unguarded, if characteristically mordant, search for meaning; “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” a gentle tribute written after his mother’s death, is also a wickedly passive-aggressive swipe at his father. The mordantly funny “Margaritas at the Mall,” is dirty realism with cosmic underpinnings, as Berman fluidly moves from listing the gaudy hues of happy hour painkillers (“magenta, orange, acid green, peacock orange and burgundy”) to pondering the unknowable ways of a subtly irascible God.
That sense of conflict with some of the biggest of big picture issues (love, family, religion, beauty) blends well with an increasingly expansive richness in his music as well. Berman has settled into his own rarified low-lit, morosely pretty country-rock idiom, and he has the perfect graveyard rumble of a voice to fit that sound. (A true student of the podunk, he gruffly admonished a New York crowd for pretending they knew who T.G. Sheppard was when the Silver Jews covered the singer’s endearingly corny 1981 hit “I Loved Them Every One” at a 2006 show), This time out there’s “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” which invokes Gary Stewart’s immortal “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Doubles),” and has a high-stepping steel guitar and fiddle that adds an irony dagger twist to its theme of watching your ex effortlessly hit the town while you stay home in an existential couch coma. On “Storyline Fever” he turns a study in “emotional paralysis” with a hard-driving sunniness that lands somewhere between the British Invasion and Bakersfield, and “Snow Is Falling On Manhattan” has the tenderly frayed beauty of Self Portrait/New Morning-era Bob Dylan. Berman recorded versions of a Purple Mountains debut with both Dan Auerbach (who gets a co-writing credit on one song) and Jeff Tweedy, and then ditched both attempts before finding the sound he liked with members of Brooklyn band Woods.
Though the story Berman tells here is uniquely his own (“I’ll put my dreams high on a shelf / I’ll have to learn to like myself,” he sings on “Maybe I’m the Only One For Me”), it’s oddly universal too — the all-too-common tale of a gifted malcontent who’s scared the world away with the same depressive self-indulgence that fuels his brilliance and allure. Purple Mountains is the sound of that guy starting to come to terms with his reality, and maybe building a new emotional architecture in the wreckage. In any case, keep ’em coming. The journey is worth it.