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Purple Mountains
Purple Mountains Noel Gardner , July 15th, 2019 07:27

Silver Jews' David Berman is back with his first new music for over a decade. Purple Mountains' eponymous debut is a fine and moving addition to his oeuvre, finds Noel Gardner

The decade-plus since David Berman’s last record has seen shifts in the discussion around privilege in music. It feels like a new pop contender or indie upstart have their upbringing exposed and picked over pretty much weekly; those spotlighted either shrug and count their blessings, or attempt to claw back some tenuous realness via deflection or denial. Berman, an invariably-described-as cult alternative rock figure who traded for two decades as Silver Jews and debuts here as Purple Mountains, quit music in 2009 claiming reasons possibly unparalleled in the business: he wished to devote his energies to opposing the career of his father, a wealthy and influential lobbyist for several of the most nakedly venal corporate organisations in the United States.

If Berman senior’s closest British equivalent is Pinochet advocate and convicted public masturbator Tim Bell, his offspring has at times approximated an American Nigel Blackwell: his lyrics a dense and evocative patchwork of archaic cultural ephemera, gnomic aphorisms, virtual non sequiturs and mordant wit. Purple Mountains is noteworthy for scaling back much of these tendencies, its ten songs near-relentlessly bleak confessionals with very slim pickings for fans of things like jokes, or even wordplay. Prior consensus deems the emotional low watermark of Berman’s catalogue to be 2001 Silver Jews album Bright Flight, gestated in the grip of substance addiction: it’s a tiptoe through the tulips compared to this.

Sonically, Purple Mountains embraces and accentuates Berman’s taste for cushion-edged, almost AOR country-rock, with none of the powerchords or uptempo jigs that peppered late-period SJs LPs Tanglewood Numbers and Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. There are multifarious layers of organ and synthesiser, twinkling backing vocals, elegaic trumpet on ‘Snow Is Falling In Manhattan’ – a wilfully sentimental festive favourite in waiting which, like ‘White Christmas’, has had its first release in July. For a songwriter who has previously kept loyal to an assortment of backing musicians (William Tyler, Rites Of Spring’s Mike Fellows, various Pavement members), here Berman steps into the unknown by having Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere, of gauzy psych-rock band Woods, produce, perform and assemble a band. Excepting, perhaps, the mildly abstract guitar solo on ‘Storyline Fever’, results indicate the duo left their own tendencies at home and played to their charge’s strengths.

If the composition and arrangements may entitle fans to treat Purple Mountains as a rebadged Silver Jews (regardless of what Berman might think of that), his lyrical tack marks this out as an empirically distinct venture. One of the best and most imaginative character writers in rock, a Jews song written in the first person would, too, feel like a fictional construct often as not. Such is not the case with an album whose opening verse observes, “Things have not been going well / This time I think I finally fucked myself,” and continues with a song titled ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’. An interview with the Washington Post, published in June as part of a typically sparse publicity campaign, illuminates the lyrics to, especially, ‘Darkness And Cold’ and C&W navelgazer ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’. The depiction of a socially awkward homebody whose partner cultivates the friendships he can’t is, seemingly, autobiographical: Berman and his wife Cassie, a Silver Jews member, have apparently separated, their respective lifestyles cited as a cause.

It should be added that this is conveyed with minimal bitterness or anger, befitting an album which betrays its protagonist’s deep reserves of love and human warmth. ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’ is as literal as its title, an entirely straight-bat tribute to his late mum; ‘Nights That Won’t Happen’ muses on death more broadly, the dichotomy between grief and relief turned over with some textbook-Berman turns of phrase. “All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” It’s not that he’s someone who, to invoke a cliched and problematic notion, needs to suffer for his art. Rather, it says much about David Berman’s gift that, after a decade laid low and from a place of perpetual cloud, he can return, unruffled, with a fine and moving addition to his canon.