Here it is then. Purple Mountains. The new name for David Berman. The new name for Silver Jews. We were promised hand crafted country rock full of wit and wisdom and and that's exactly what we got. It's rare a late career album builds so thoughtfully on a musical legacy. From 'Magaritas at the Mall' to 'I Loved Being My Mother's Son', 'Purple Mountains' is an instant classic.
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On hearing about the passing of David Berman, one of the first things I did was go to check out the Norman Records review of his recent Purple Mountains album. The result was that I saw a void rather than the lengthy gush I expected. Thing is, I ignored the record too and I don’t know why. I guess I was curious about it as I’d liked a lot of his earlier Silver Jews records and he always has something thought provoking or witty to say. I guess I’d marked it down as one to check out in the future.
Listening to the quality of the songs within I now feel utterly ashamed for not listening whilst the man was still on the planet though, rather like David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ I suspect the songs make more sense after the singers death. The most obvious is the stand out ‘Nights That Won’t Happen’. It opens with the line “the dead know what they are doing when they leave this world behind”. Berman has always had a knack for a great opening line but this is a heartbreaking kick to the stomach. This sighing rumination has an otherworldly quality that sounds like Berman is speaking from beyond the grave and it could only be written by a man who is considering the world without him. The music has a gorgeous hymnal quality, the sort that only Leonard Cohen has got close to in the past. Similarly gut wrenching is ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’. An almost frighteningly straightforward and honest paeon to the singer’s mother. It’s almost too much to bear but sits on the right side of the mawkishness that lesser songwriters would bring to it. Again coo-ing female backing vocals bring a hymnal quality particularly in the line “she was, she was, she was” which will break anyone not already in floods of tears.
Otherwise the record is at its best when talking about depression and anxiety by way of upbeat country-ish pop. There are three stunning examples of this, the first being ‘All My Happiness is Gone’. There’s no time here to quote the lyrics verbatim but every single line is gold. It is topped off by a wondrous upbeat chorus that defies the subject matter. You are left floored by the ability to eruditely describe the human condition and then make you sing along as if it’s a Glen Campbell Golden Great. ‘Margaritas at the Mall’ and ‘Storyline Fever’ do a similar thing and are both amongst the best music you’ll hear this year...if ever.
I don’t necessarily like every track but they all have something useful, droll or heartbreaking to say. Several tracks in I realised I’m in the company of what will be seen as a future classic and importantly if you’ve ever suffered with acute anxiety or depression, it’s all in here written with a skill and panache that seems to evade other writers. David Berman has left us a record that will be talked about in years to come and in a strange way it needed his death to happen in order for the full picture to be seen. I just hope he is now at peace.
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