- by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2019-07-12 Label: Drag City
After hanging it up seemingly for good back in 2009 Silver Jews’ leader David Berman spent the next ten years not just looking over the precipice. He jumped into the abyss and actively walked around in it accompanied only by his dark thoughts. Losing his mother, sparring with his father, separating from his wife Cassie, and walling himself off from outside society he became a recluse on par with a latter day Howard Hughes (hopefully minus the pee jars). Whatever waiting game Berman may have been playing, thankfully he blinked and is making his reemergence under the nom de plume of Purple Mountains.
He’s backed on the self-titled debut by the luckiest fuckers on the planet - namely Woods, whose Jeremy Earl was smart enough to not assume a late night reach out from Berman was some kind of a sick prank. It’s on par with getting an email from Andy Kaufman saying he’s finally ready to come out now. After some aborted musical attempts with other artists, fortunately Berman and Woods with backing vocals by Anna St. Louis managed to get a full length album together. Earl and bandmate Jarvis Taveniere serve as co-producers. And as glum as much of the subject matter is, I’m happy to report that it’s a glorious return to form.
Not unlike the beginning of Starlite Walker, we are met first on Purple Mountains with only a voice. Berman’s craggy growl leads off ‘That’s Just The Way I Feel’ with Woods bounding in a few steps behind him. The song sums up a decade in about three minutes and Woods’ backing is a rollicking ramble on par with some band called The Hawks that once backed up Dylan. Elsewhere the group takes on the countrypolitan politeness of mid-period Lambchop to great effect as well. Half the joy of listening to Berman is the endless reel of witty one liners heard for the first time, so I don’t want to take that away from you. But when he states “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion” it fairly well sums up all that is to follow. Every song on the album is chock full of autobiographical snippets from his lost decade.
A couple of other lively songs follow, including the keyboard washes of ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’. If you were at all in tune to Berman’s return, you’ve probably already listened to the song dozens of times and rightfully so. The lonely country echoes of ‘Darkness and Cold’ with St. Louis’ assist are most on par with the latter period Jews but he never before would have been so transparent about the dissolution of his marriage. Nonetheless it makes for an easy sing along moment.
The middle of the album holds some lovely lower key moments if you give them the patience to unfold. The only song that doesn’t seem to concern itself with things so dire is the six minute ‘Snow Is Falling In Manhattan’ that sounds like an outtake from Lambchop’s Is A Woman album down to a Wagnerian delivery. Given the earlier backing band reference, it’s also hard not to recall Lambchop brilliantly backing Vic Chesnutt and Kyle Forester’s understated horn charts here give the song a classy flow. The later ‘Nights That Won’t Happen’ get back to the hangdog feel of the rest of the album delivered in a just a smidge off lounge style. Sandwiched between these two subtler moments you get the not as fun as it sounds ‘Margaritas At The Mall’. The song has a fitting high plains drift to it and the drinking at hand equates to Nero fiddling while Rome is burning. Humanity has been abandoned to fend for themselves with Berman nailing the description of the myriad “acid green” and “peacock blue” concoctions available to see us through.
On an album with plenty of highlights, the penultimate track ‘Storyline Fever’ picks up the pace as the album comes to a close. Berman takes the faster paced song right in stride, giving hope that maybe he could still pick his way around the verbal gymnastics of something like ‘San Francisco B.C.’ The clean guitar line that twists through the song ends up in an absolute tangle as Berman describes himself as bandleader with a comb-over being “more Larry than Lizard King”. The bristling brightest moment on display here but far from the shiny, happy moment Berman always feared.
With transparent Roger Miller-esque song titles like ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’ and ‘Maybe I’m The Only One For Me’, Berman makes no bones about the condition his condition is in. He comes off as the guy with his suitcase on the dock knowing good and well that the cruise ship that just departed isn’t turning that hulk back around to pick him up. In spite of all that Berman may have been through in the past ten years, his brand of humor has not diminished in the least and his willingness to share comes with a mix of heartbreak and revelation. While all the pundits get ready to spar over whether Kanye or Kendrick had the album of the 2010s, Berman makes the hands down comeback of the decade with half a year to spare.