The decision to return to the recording studio can’t have been one that David Berman took lightly. When he officially disbanded the much-loved Silver Jews there was an air of finality about the parting statement that was due in part to Berman’s strange personal circumstances: he revealed that his father was the lobbyist, legal adviser and doyen of neoliberalism Richard Berman. Berman Senior, his son claimed, was ‘a world historical motherfucking son of a bitch,’ personally responsible for much of what is wrong with America today, and the sins of the father were simply too monumental to be offset by the songs of the son. Berman retreated from the public eye, occasionally writing obscure and impassioned blog posts about the state of his country, but giving no impression that he was continuing to write songs.
In the absence of any new material, and in the light of Berman’s comments about his father, Silver Jews songs became ripe for reinterpretation. Already multi-layered and often astonishing in their poetic detail, some of them began to take on the form of one-sided psychoanalytic conversations, with listeners taking on the role of shrink. The most avid of Silver Jews fans became Freudian or Jungian dream interpreters. The songs themselves often contained the imagery of psychoanalysis. A verse in ‘Buckingham Rabbit’ from American Water runs: ‘At the back of the bar there’s a couch where the lonely people go and lie/they talk to the honkey tonk psychiatrist into the wee hours of the night,’ and Berman, the barroom shrink, became the patient. The songs grew independently in the wild, like snakes.
Of course, Berman’s relationship with his father was more ambiguous than his parting shot implied – at one point, for example, the father paid for the son’s rehabilitation after a long period of severe substance abuse – but effectively their story is one of estrangement, or partial estrangement. And it is another estrangement that has provided the catalyst for Berman’s return. Because The Purple Mountains – the name of Berman’s new group and the name of its first record – is a breakup album. He has spoken candidly in interviews about the state of his relationship with his wife and former bandmate Cassie: the two live apart, and despite still sharing a bank account are effectively no longer a couple. Never one to shy away from documenting his own depression, Berman has created an album that confronts what it means for a middle-aged man to be newly single and not too happy about it.
Silver Jews records always started with a bang. Perhaps the most famous Berman lyric is the opening line of ‘Random Rules’, the first track on 1998’s American Water: ‘In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection.’ It is memorable because it is ballsy and bullish and funny, and because it is so obviously troubled. A feature of many of the best Silver Jews songs was their ability to get into your head with playful humour or a wordy kind of confidence and then, when they seemed to have taken up permanent residence, to mutate into something strange and worrisome. Weird parasitic insects controlling the brain. Double meanings abound, and not just double meanings. You could spend hours unpicking the layers of a Berman song and still feel like you are missing something.
Another Silver Jews opening line might provide an insight into the new Purple Mountains songs, and then again it might not. ‘No I don’t really want to die, I only want to die in your eyes,’ sings Berman in ‘How To Rent A Room’, which appears at the front end of the 1996 masterpiece The Natural Bridge. You could read this as a bitterly elliptical breakup song with Berman playing the part of the jilted lover dropping coded insults at the door of his ex: ‘You’re a tower without the bells, you’re a negative wishing well.’ But Berman’s diatribe against his father, more than a decade later, has cast a whole new light on the song. The clues are there, and hindsight makes detectives of us all. Note the reference to dubious parenthood: ‘I should have checked the stable door for the name of the sire and dam’. Note the narrator’s disgust at privilege: ‘Have you even ever rented a room?’ Note the use of the word ‘evil’, which is reflected in the language Berman uses in his later statement. It’s hard not to see the song as a cryptic precursor to those more directly formulated ideas. Even that bleak, bruising first line contains in it the wish to be both recognised by and completely distanced from – whom? – a father, perhaps.
But what does any of this have to do with the new album? Well, in Berman’s lyrical world everything is doubled. Everything is mirrored. Here is the opening verse of the first Purple Mountains song:
Well I don’t like talking to myself
But someone’s got to say it, hell
I mean things have not been going well
This time I think I finally fucked myself.
On paper, this acts as a fairly simple introduction to what is to come. We are dropped headfirst into the narrator’s lonely, self-absorbed, painful world, and we know it’s unlikely to get any easier – for us or for him. But listen again to the first few seconds. In particular the first three words of the album. Two of those three words are the same as the opening line of The Natural Bridge. And listen to the intonation in both of the songs, the resignation in Berman’s voice. The mirroring effect is uncanny. These mirrors, often slightly skewed, distorted and disquieting, are a feature of the Silver Jews’ lyrical output. The Natural Bridge is full – I mean absolutely bursting – with examples. And at times Purple Mountains – an album that ostensibly represents a clean break from the Silver Jews days – is like a warped mirror held up to that entire, brilliant body of work.
And look at the rhyme scheme in that first song. Instead of going with something familiar – ABAB, say, or AABB – Berman employs an almost brutalist AAAA format, effectively doubling down on the rhymes. This technique occurs throughout the album, most notably on ‘Margaritas At The Mall’, where each of the four increasingly desperate lines of the pre-chorus ends in the word ‘God’. For Berman, songwriting has always been, amongst other things, a kind of conjurer’s trick. His songs are twisted halls of mirrors, windows on the infinite.
That opening track, ‘That’s Just The Way I Feel’, introduces what is to be the album’s MO: pitch-black humour and morbid self-examination concealed by disconcertingly optimistic country-rock tunes. The word-play, as you would expect from rock music’s finest poet, is consistently astonishing, even when it is seemingly simple. He bemoans the fact that when he happens to meet his ex-lover in the park, they ‘stand the standard distance distant strangers stand apart.’ Aside from its obvious cleverness, this line marks the first instance in the album of the word ‘strange’ and its derivatives. It’s always been one of Berman’s favourite words; here it becomes the focus.
‘Lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go,’ he sings early on in the second song, ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’. Here, the chorus is pure, distilled Berman: the essence of depression delivered over a jaunty, radio friendly melody. He has always worked on many levels, lyrically speaking, and now he is existing on a different level too: ‘Way deep down, some substratum.’ His use of the ‘sub’ prefix has echoes of Natural Bridge track ‘The Frontier Index’, where he sings ‘Now that I’m older, subspace is colder,’ a line that could easily have come from this album. And the old preoccupation with doubling is here too. ‘Double darkness falling fast.’ Not just any old darkness for Dave. Make his a double every time.
In interviews Berman has stated that his favourite song from the new clutch is ‘Darkness And Cold’. Given that it is the most direct and autobiographical song about his current relationship status, it is tempting to see that as an act of brutal self flagellation. But in truth it is a frankly great song. You’d be inclined to call it bittersweet, but that word implies a kind of fifty-fifty split between bitter and sweet, and in this case Berman favours one half of the equation over the other. I’ll let you guess which. Here the grand dichotomies are focused into a poetry of the banal: his lover’s ‘pink champagne Corvette’ versus the ‘band-aid pink Chevette’ where he sleeps provides one of the album’s enduring images.
I’ve referred to Purple Mountains as a breakup album, but there is more to it than that. What constitutes a breakup album anyway? Do all the songs have to be explicitly about a parting of ways? More than fifty per cent? Does it have to be about one breakup, or can it be about many? Five, maybe six of Purple Mountains’ ten songs are unequivocally about the end of Berman’s relationship with Cassie or the depressive fallout from that event, including the first three. The theme creates the mood, but allows space for other subjects to be explored. And of course this is an album by someone who has plenty of things to say – about the state of the world, the state of his home country, about family and about death – and the voice to say them well and interestingly. No single concept can contain all of what the author is trying to express here, so it’s probably best not to try to enforce one post hoc.
One of the most difficult songs to categorise is ‘Snow Is Falling In Manhattan’. Berman took inspiration from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and its groundbreaking philosophical examinations of architecture and its relationship with people. Architecture – whether buildings, blueprints or bridges – has always been part of Berman’s own poetic space, but here the examination is steadier, more rigorous, more beautiful. The song constructs a version of Bachelard’s dream house and invites the listener in. The band slows the pace right down. There is a slow shuffle of percussion, a musty horn section. Shades of Bill Callahan, Tindersticks and even Calexico. Berman inhabits characters that are, on the face of it, far removed from the autobiographical sketches he has painted up until this point. And he plays around with perspective and point of view in a similar way to Bob Dylan on that truly great breakup album, Blood On The Tracks. The people in this song are mysterious. There is a good caretaker (and the way he sings ‘good caretaker seems to imply that there is also a bad caretaker out there somewhere, a Lynchian double). There is an unnamed friend. There are random acts of kindness. It seems like a world Berman wants to inhabit, a world on the other side of the mirror.
Worlds that exist out of time and space were a commonplace in Silver Jews songs. Here, on an album full of uncryptic honesty, they are rarer. But they still crop up from time to time, most notably on ‘Margaritas At The Mall’. The Mall in question seems to be a kind of purgatory, or perhaps an aftermath of sorts: a world that could be post-apocalyptic or just post-love, where a happy hour that is anything but happy has ‘got us by the balls.’ It could also be the album’s only overt political statement. Is it too much to suggest that the song’s ‘subtle god’ is a super-ironic Trump? ‘What I’d give for an hour with the power on the throne,’ narrates Berman, and in light of a decade spent attempting to right the political wrongs of his father it seems likely that the power he is talking about is the current leader of the free world.
Another facet of Purple Mountains that crystallises in ‘Margaritas At The Mall’ is the use of colour, and in particular unnatural or hyper-vivid colour, to create an atmosphere of unease. This is one of the sources of Berman’s characteristic strangeness in an album that tends to avoid the verbal surreality that courses through his earlier work. A hallucinatory palette is itemised: ‘Magenta, orange, acid green, peacock blue and burgundy’: new primary colours for a bizarre alternative world. Disconcerting colours that, like the ‘band-aid pink’ of the narrator’s Chevette conjure up illness and an estrangement from nature. Even the colour in the band name and album title has a deeper meaning. Berman chose Purple Mountains to reflect a commonly misheard line from ‘America the Beautiful’. Once again, a twisted, off-centre reflection.
Side two begins with – you might have guessed it – a song about strangers and strangeness. ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’, like many of the songs here, bounces along with a perky but rough-edged country and western lilt. It comes as no surprise to learn that the musicians behind this consistently shambling aesthetic are psych-folk/Americana stalwarts Woods. Berman only settled on Woods after sessions with Dan Bejar of Destroyer failed to live up to his hopes, Flirtations with everyone from the Pastels to Dan Auerbach via J Mascis were mooted, but never materialised. Purple Mountains could have sounded very different (and in the multiple universes that exist in Berman’s songs there are likely multiple Purple Mountains fulfilling subtly different purposes) but it is hard to imagine that it could have sounded much better.
Berman and his new collaborators know exactly when to go full throttle and when to strip things back to their barest elements. ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’ is characterised by the simplest and steadiest of melodies and a soft, reverential strum of acoustic guitar. On an album where none of the songs seem to be directly about Berman’s father, there is always the temptation to interpret the absence as a statement in itself. In such a reading, a song in praise of the mother might be seen as an attack on the father. But this is clearly not the case: What we have here is a loving elegy, pure and simple, or as pure and as simple as anything can be in Berman’s world. When an artist’s back catalogue is as complex and poetically coherent as Berman’s we can be forgiven for trying to decode every word in terms of the wider web of meaning he has created. In this song, for example, he sings: ‘When I couldn’t count my friends on a single thumb I loved her to the maximum,’ and it for some listeners it will recall the line ‘I always loved you to the max,’ from ‘Punks In The Beerlight’. Only this time it’s about Berman’s mother, whereas that song was presumably about Cassie. If this is the first real sign that Berman has considered moving on, it is an oblique one. And if you want to do an even closer reading of the link between those two lines: how do you get from ‘max’ to ‘maximum’? You add ‘I’ and ‘mum’. Is this Berman moving away from Cassie and coming back to himself, and to the memory of his family?
Any hope of inner peace seems to have dissipated by the next song. ‘Nights That Won’t Happen’ is essentially the evil twin of the Moody Blues’ ‘Nights In White Satin’, only the subject here is suicide rather than shagging. The band once again show their chops, creating a backcloth that is dreamlike and sedated while Berman sings that ‘the dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.’ Given his history of depression and substance abuse it might be cause for worry, but as in the previous song the mood here is elegiac and reflective, a reverie that – dare we say it – allows room for a better future.
And that hint of uplift carries through into the final pair of songs, ‘Storyline Fever’ and ‘Maybe I’m The Only One For Me’. There are jokes littered throughout the album – stick a pin in the lyric sheet and you’ll likely hit a one-liner that is either hilarious or heartbreaking, or both – and towards the end the humour comes thick and fast. Part of the legacy of country and western music is how it has legitimised self-mockery, even self-parody, and Berman has taken this to a new level. He scrutinises himself in mirror bent out of shape by life’s knocks. ‘I wish they didn’t set mirrors behind the bar, because I can’t stand to look at my face when I don’t know where you are,’ he sings in ‘Inside The Golden Days Of Missing You’, from The Natural Bridge, while ‘The Frontier Index’, from the same album, incorporates not one but two complete long-form jokes into its lyrics.
The mask of humour, particularly Berman’s self-deprecating brand of humour, is commonly used by extremely intelligent people who lack self-confidence or are of a depressive nature. If ‘Storyline Fever’ sees him tilting at the internet echo-chamber approach to forming a set of moral values, ‘Maybe I’m The Only One For Me’ is more personal, simultaneously skewering the incel culture (if it can be called a culture) while admitting that he is not so far away from it himself.
It’s impossible to be fooled by this album’s apparent flippancy though, and its creator doesn’t want you to be. He is simply showing you a world in which jokes, cleverness, and a love of language can all coexist with an utter and numbing desperation. This kind of honesty is rare in music. But Berman has nothing to lose: he makes it perfectly clear that at some point in the not-too-distant past his life reached something that could be described as rock bottom. He appears, tentatively, to be moving away from that period, but he knows that it’s possible to be back there again. In The Purple Mountains he has created a document of personal suffering and redemption, an architectural framework that supports an intricate and far-reaching examination of what it means to be a human and in pain. Berman is well and truly back, and he has brought with him, from the brink, a strange and vivid masterpiece.