The Greatest Songwriter You’ve Never Heard of Is Back

Silver Jews’ David Berman has returned, and Purple Mountains finds him still on his game.

David Berman
David Berman. Reuben Strayer/Wikipedia

To make anything at all, artists have to put themselves in a kind of delusional state. First, they have to believe something grander can arise out of their puny, miserable, human self. Plus, that in a world striated by urgent distress calls, it’s worthwhile to sweat over adding more make-believe scenarios, doodles, and rhymes to culture’s stuffed storehouses. Because once in a while it turns out to be true. But since creators have to go under that willed spell to do their jobs, it should follow that people shouldn’t put too much stock in what an artist goes on to say about the process, save perhaps the way an analyst takes in a patient recounting her dreams.

Alas, that ain’t the society we live in. Instead, we’ve got “storyline fever, storyline flu.” That’s how David Berman puts it on his new album under the name Purple Mountains. He’s referring to the kind of individual interpretive disorder that leads to cognitive catastrophizing and panic attacks, but the diagnosis applies equally well to the collective epidemic of artworks being reduced to autobiography, songs viewed as footnotes to Instagram stories and Twitter posts, and misspoken interview quotes taking up more airspace than the creations that occasion them.

Purple Mountains comes a decade after Berman’s last release under his former bandonym, Silver Jews, the on-and-off 1989–2009 project (begun with college friend Stephen Malkmus and other future members of Pavement) that proved Berman was arguably one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, if you could scare up enough people who’d heard of him to have the argument. In the space of six albums and a couple of EPs, of which two of those projects reached a ramshackle perfection (1996’s The Natural Bridge and 1998’s American Water), the rest patchier but never without visionary bursts, Berman delivered a singular aesthetic universe. His shaggy, reticent drawl and country-ish melodies, inheritances of his part-Texan youth, help to ground the loose electricity of his poetry. And poetry it is: Berman studied with the late Pulitzer winner James Tate at UMass–Amherst—he posted a video tribute to his mentor this week—and his acclaimed 1999 collection, Actual Air, makes him one of the few rock wordsmiths this side of Leonard Cohen to thrive on the printed page as well. It’s typical of his style that on The Natural Bridge’s “Inside the Golden Days of Missing You,” the metaphysical comedy of “What if life is just some hard equation/ On a chalkboard in a science class for ghosts?” is counterbalanced by the saloon poignancy of “I wish they didn’t set mirrors behind the bar/ ’Cause I can’t stand to look at my face/ When I don’t know where you are.” (Ghosts and mirrors make many repeat appearances in Berman songs.)

Perhaps my favorite Silver Jews track, American Water’s “We Are Real,” starts with casual route instructions, albeit with a tongue-in-cheek twist—“Up the hill past 694, at the stone wall make a left/ And I will see you soon, my friend, if these old directions still direct”—but quickly levitates into Berman’s characteristic realm of gnomic imagery and aphorism, such as “Won’t soul music change/ Now that our souls have turned strange” or “Repair is the dream of the broken thing.” It builds to a forceful bridge that struck me then as a kind of summary Gen X manifesto but now seems more all-inclusive: “We’ve been raised on replicas of fake and winding roads/ And day after day upon this beautiful stage/ We’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage/ But we are real, I know we are real.” (It’s a symptom of Silver Jews fandom that we’re prone to quoting countless couplets at you, but that should be enough for a general feel.) Melancholy may always have been Berman’s dominant note, but the spectrum of observational overtones and absurd inversions he brought to it made songs like these feel life-expanding rather than narrowing.

Berman has spent the bulk of his time in show business doing very little showing. On a career level, he was a near-recluse. Throughout the 1990s, while his friends were reaping the benefits of the alternative-rock boom, Berman kept stubbornly to himself, never even performing live and recording with a rotating cast to resist the press’s lazy labeling of the Silver Jews as a Pavement side project. And yet his life and work are subjected to the narrative tyranny of storyline fever strangely often. Maybe unwanted personal attention is just what hermitic cult artists attract, via some quasi-Newtonian law of cultural physics. Or maybe it’s that when Berman does expose his life and thoughts to the open, shit tends to get dramatic.

In a jaw-dropping 2005 Nick Weidenfeld profile for the Fader titled “Dying in the Al Gore Suite,” Berman revealed that in 2003, after several years of using crack and heroin and meth, he’d checked himself into the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in his adopted city of Nashville, Tennessee, to overdose. He took the room in which Al Gore waited out the recounts in the 2000 presidential election, saying to himself, “I want to die where the presidency died.” Technically, Berman did slip off his mortal coil. But he was found by his wife and sometime Silver Jews bandmate Cassie and revived. He sobered up and went on to make two more albums and even to promote them by going on tours for the first time ever. Then, in early 2009, after a final concert in an underground cavern in Tennessee, Berman disbanded the Joos (as fans called them) and declared that he was going to devote his life to “muckraking,” to combat what he described as the demonic work of his father, the corporate lawyer, lobbyist, shill, and spin doctor Richard Berman. You might say that his capacity to escape real-world vexations by going into a creative trance had sputtered out (or, going by more recent statements, maybe he got discouraged by the middling reviews of that last Joos album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea). Cue 10 years of silence, ruffled by occasional rumors. Then, in the past few months, Berman was discovered crashing in the Chicago headquarters of his record label Drag City, separated from Cassie, and in possession of a new album of starkly confessional new songs.

This week, in an interview with the music site Aquarium Drunkard, he managed to rile up a bunch of online music fans who’d barely known of him before by saying that too many older musicians are misled by critics who praise every new album as a return to form—and so they’re protected from realizing that as songwriters they’ve “lost their talent.” The provocation was that he named names, like Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson, and Bruce Springsteen. Of course, this prompted some to spring into defense—who the hell was Berman to blaspheme these giants? But whether his general point was valid or applicable to those particular artists, the outraged tended to miss a couple of points of context: First, elsewhere in the interview, he suggested that it was crazy for anyone today to have children, not because of climate change so much as because they would end up being subordinate to the coming wave of elite, genetically edited superhumans. So, again, let’s maybe not mistake artists for pundits. But second, this concern about lost talent is obviously the preoccupation of a songwriter in his early 50s returning with his first batch of material in 10 years.

Berman worked these songs over and over through several years and scrapped attempts—he started off collaborating with one of his few contemporary peers as a lyricist, Vancouver’s Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer) and ended up recording with the thirtysomethings of the Brooklyn band Woods. The effort is evident in Purple Mountains’ dense internal rhymes and honed, precise scansion. The question remains, though, if anyone will tell Berman whether it’s up to his own standards or if he’ll be stuck in his own bubble, the prodigal songwriter returned and celebrated for that fact alone. What’s more, Purple Mountains may be Berman’s most harrowing and least playful record, though there’s some anticness still. Whose place is it to question the quality of a person’s exposed suffering, of their suicidal depression and lost love, so bravely laid bare? Certainly no one’s if storyline trumps all.

But as a devotee as well as a critic, I want to rise to Berman’s challenge not to coddle him. This is trickier than it sounds. When a beloved artist releases new material, the first thing one tends to hear is just the essence that makes them them, and that’s a welcome feeling, especially after a long absence. I rated Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea very highly in 2009, and it was only with the passing years that I realized I tended to return to only a few songs from it compared with most of the Joos’ corpus.

Moreover, Purple Mountains is unlike the Silver Jews in ways that complicate the comparison. The change of band name here feels right, not only because of the time elapsed and because it finally liberates Berman from the awkwardly jokey tag he never expected to have to live with for so long. Partly, the sound that first-time producers Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl of Woods have found is just slightly lusher than on Silver Jews albums. Nothing ever can replace the interplay between Berman’s vocals and Malkmus’ guitar—they had a gutter-sublime, Jagger/Richards-goes-to-Value-Village dynamic, which was sacrificed to Berman’s fears of being overshadowed. But these Purple Mountains come with some of their own majesties, including a range of instrumental textures and background vocals (most memorably the Nico-like strains of Haley Fohr from Circuit des Yeux on the song “Nights That Won’t Happen”).

More dramatically, though, Purple Mountains just finds Berman writing in a more direct personal address than ever before, light on image and metaphor, rarely venturing into the rhetorical ionosphere that’s always set him apart. The tone is set from the first line of the first track, “That’s Just the Way I Feel”: “Well, I don’t like talking to myself/ But someone’s got to say it, hell/ I mean, things have not been going well.” It’s not that the language isn’t rich. In this song alone, Berman describes running into his estranged partner in the park and wrenchingly observing that now “we stand the standard distance distant strangers stand apart” as well as that he’s been “forced to watch my foes enjoy ceaseless feasts of schadenfreude.” But the lyrics don’t veer off-topic in ways to make one puzzle over the linkages between one section and another, the way so many Silver Jews lyrics do. Indeed, if not for their unconventional vocabularies and stray obscenities, a few of these songs feel like they could almost pass for conventional Nashville songwriting. Almost, but never quite, of course. The inside joke I love the most on the opening track is when Berman lifts a line (slightly altered) out of Kenny Rogers’ 1977 hit “Lucille”—“but this kind of hurting won’t heal”—and then follows it with “the end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting, and that’s just the way that I feel,” sounding like a Buddhist suicide note.

The subject matter throughout the album is nearly monochrome: his depression, his separation (“Darkness and Cold,” “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me,” and “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”), the death of Berman’s mother (“I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is his most sentimental song ever, to a nearly Victorian extreme), death in general (the aching “Nights That Won’t Happen”), and the existential void. The song most directly about the latter posits that in the absence of any “new word from God,” life amounts to little more than drinking “Margaritas at the mall,” and it ironically features one of the record’s few big bursts of color when it drily rhymes off the hues of said empty-calorie, soul-emptying beverages: “Magenta, orange, acid-green/ Peacock-blue and burgundy.” (Jimmy Buffet, your terminal chess match awaits.)

As has been Berman’s wont at least since the end of the Joos’ earliest noise-rock phase, these grim songs aren’t, however, mated with dour tunes. The music is lilting and usually uplifting. It’s welcoming, in the spirit of the statement of purpose that Berman embeds in the set piece “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan.” Generally this more serene track is the only one that seems to step back from the album’s mood, to depict a winter streetscape, at a remove from Berman’s personal struggles, but then there is a verse of metacommentary: “Songs build little rooms in time/ And housed within the song’s design/ Is the ghost the host has left behind/ To greet and sweep the guest inside/ Stoke the fire, and sing his lines.” The modest gentility of that directive caught me off guard at first—in the past I would have taken Berman more for the type to subscribe to Kafka’s credo that writing “must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” But on this emotionally confrontational album, on which more than ever Berman’s punchlines leave bruises, the reminder that the same ax can also help build shelters is a balancing respite. The relative plainspokenness of Purple Mountains is a sign of a maturing craft, of not wanting to play evasive games.

And yet, and yet. Berman is such a delightful games player, and has devised so many ingenious ones, that I can’t help hoping that part of his light isn’t forever extinguished. It’s certainly true that there have been times in Berman’s past—the weaker songs on Lookout Mountain, for instance—when whimsy had too much control and became a time waster. But there are other songwriters who excel at emotional reportage, while only a precious few can add Berman’s type of mysterious alchemy. Given all that he’s been through in recent years, it makes sense that it was time, at 52, for Berman to offer more of a frank and raw self-portrait than the witty one he drew at 28, in one of his finest poems. Both song by song and cumulatively, the power of Purple Mountains seldom ebbs: As he sings off the top, “A setback can be a setup/ For a comeback, if you don’t let up.” But now that his momentum has returned, I’d prefer to imagine that in the future, Purple Mountains will be recalled more as a one-time distinctive personal testament, in the mode of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band or Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, rather than as Berman’s new normal. Berman has reported that, uncharacteristically, he’s carried on writing since finishing the album—for the Fourth of July, he posted a striking, subtly political, but also near-Dickinsonian short poem, or perhaps new song lyric. Perhaps the years off he spent fixating on right-wing malfeasance will yield something unpredictable yet.

But that’s me coming down with storyline fever again, trying to anticipate the next turn in the tale. What’s certain about Purple Mountains is that Berman can rest assured that his powers have not deserted him yet. It’s a record for anyone whose hopes feel recently ravaged, which in 2019 may be a plurality of humanity. And as art goes, it executes its magic with a remarkable minimum of delusion.

Purple Mountains album cover
Drag City

Purple Mountains

The new album from Purple Mountains