David Berman is not a happy man. He never has been, or so it seems, and it feels increasingly likely he won’t be. That melancholy streak ran through his previous music project, Silver Jews, for years. Often erroneously viewed as a Pavement side project early on, Silver Jews was entirely a method for Berman to get his poetic lyrics out into the world. Eventually, the guys from Pavement would fade to the back, and Berman pressed on, even beginning to tour. Then, several years ago, he set the Joos, as he would often stylize the band’s name, and music aside.
Now, finally, Berman is back under a new alias in Purple Mountains. He just released a self-titled album and, well, all the old Berman touches are there. Words are still flowing from him, but so is a tangible sense of despair. Things have not been going well for Berman, or so it seems. In the leadup to the record he has made no bones about the fact he has split from his wife Cassie, who was a member of the Silver Jews for its last couple of albums. He left their home in Tennessee and basically lives at Drag City headquarters now. Berman is alone, and he seems heartbroken, and it’s coming out in his music.
Berman has never had what you would call a traditional singer’s voice. He has a deep, drawling voice, one that he uses to almost essentially talk sing. He operates like a poet setting his poems to music, which is not an inapt way to describe him. However, there is emotion in his voice. There always is. And, more importantly, there is emotion in his lyrics. The second song on the album is called “All My Happiness is Gone.” That should give you a sense of the vibe. There is a dark cloud looming overhead, but there is some beauty in that darkness.
Berman knows how to turn a phrase, and he creates some compelling imagery, often even in sentences that don’t make functional sense. He’s creating a mood, a sense of place, and also just giving you some words to mull over in your mind. There is a real country feel to Purple Mountains, which is not entirely different than the Jews output, at least toward the end. However, there is definitely a step up on that front. He’s a singer-songwriter now, with a backing band that has a hint of honky tonk in them. It calls to mind those country singers of yore who would caterwaul through tales of woe. Berman is their direct descendent.
Anything new from Berman will come as a reason for celebration for fans of Silver Jews, even if it feels odd to “celebrate” a man channeling his despair and fractured personal life in the music. It’s not a great album. There are limitations to the music, and to Berman’s voice. Purple Mountains is missing a little something. Maybe it’s because of all the time the man at the center spent away from music. Maybe there are better albums ahead. Hey, maybe there are brighter days ahead for Berman. It’s a really good album, at least if you don’t mind wallowing in some sadness along the way, and it shows that Berman hasn’t lost what he had. There is probably no solace in that, but Berman’s new projects certainly deserves praise.