Now that we’ve made it through Criterion Month, it seems as good a time as any to talk about some music that I was grooving to during July, despite being distracted from listening to music by arthouse cinema.
Anyways, isn’t this a surprise? After spending “a decade playing chicken with oblivion”, as David Berman states in the album’s lead-off track, free from the commitments of his longtime band Silver Jews, the man is back. In the years since Silver Jews broke up in 2009, Berman didn’t seem beholden to the music world, and in fact seemed to have turned his back on it, more inclined to spend his time writing poetry and, reading books, I guess. But in the ten years since the last Silver Jews record, he seems to have gone through a lot personally. Unsurprisingly, his personal troubles (which include a divorce) make for the basis of much of the album, and makes for some of the best material of his career.
Silver Jews were kind of an odd band, since I think most of the people who have discovered them are Pavement fans who saw that Stephen Malkmus had this other critically acclaimed band in the ’90s. But really, the Silver Jews is David Berman’s show, as is Purple Mountains. Not only does he have one of the more distinctly unpolished croons in rock, but his lyrics are so disarmingly clever and honest, that while listening to this album I often found myself either chuckling to myself or thinking “God, that’s the saddest thing ever”. I won’t bore you with the mountains (ha) of great lyrical moments on Purple Mountains, but I’m not sure there’s anything quite as indicative of the album’s tragic bent as “Darkness and Cold”, a song in which Berman recounts watching the light of his life get ready to go out with another man.
The closest thing I can compare this album to is catching up with an old friend who’s not in a great place, and yet, professionally is at the top of their game. “All My Happiness Is Gone” is another great example of this, imbuing an inability to take pleasure in anything, but forging on anyways. It’s a marvel that this album is as listenable as it is considering the subject matter. I suppose chalk it up to the upbeat nature of the band’s playing and Berman’s droll sense of humor. I know I’m basically talking about Purple Mountains as if they’re a Berman solo band, but the country-ish, twilight sound of the album isn’t out of line with what Berman was doing with Silver Jews. Yet, this sound also gives him an extra oomph, and as the song “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me” exhibits, even though Berman may possibly hate himself, he seems refreshingly comfortable talking about it.