After ten years on the sidelines, David Berman has decided to chime in with a new album under a new name. If we take him at his word, ten years ago his biggest fear was that he might accidentally write the answer song to ‘Shiny Happy People’. Depending on what you think that answer is, you might find yourself wondering if this album is the product of Berman facing that fear. After all, who’s to say what the answer is…
Purple Mountains unfolds like a play in three acts. It’s easy enough to get caught up in the autobiographical aspects of what the album tells us the last ten years have been like. But what makes the songs on this album great is that they don’t have to be about Berman or about anyone else for that matter. They work on that level even as they resonate on multiple levels of abstraction.
The first act traces the geographical wanderings and psychological meanderings of a lost soul in broad strokes. ‘That’s Just the Way I Feel’ delivers exactly what it promises. ‘All My Happiness is Gone’ is a bouncy little ditty that delves into the depths of the disconnect. ‘Darkness and Cold’ marks bottom at the moment when the last bit of joy in life has to jump ship in order to save itself. The first act closes with a counterpoint. ‘Snow is Falling in Manhattan’ finds that even from the darkness of the depths, there are sparks of light in special moments.
The second act turns outward and offers observations on all the things that are waiting to pile on when you’re already down. ‘Margaritas at the Mall’ is an ode to the soma and simulacra that are the suburban substitutes for exploration and experience. ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’ is a play by play commentary on being torn away. ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’ is a reflection on the opiate of yearning for things that are gone when you’re hopelessly searching for what you know you need right now. ‘Nights That Won’t Happen’ closes the second act and sets up the turn to the final act with an unresolvable tension.
The final act offers capstones to both the inward and the outward facing questions that the album engages with. ‘Storyline Fever’ addresses the audience with an admonition to resist easy answers and smooth narratives lest “horseshit” start to “sound good to you”. ‘Maybe I’m the Only One for Me’ turns the gaze back inward. Having surveyed the past and the present, the narrator turns to face his future… alone.
This is an album you don’t meet every day. The humour is dark. The heartache is real. If they weren’t then whatever hope there is to be heard would end up sounding hollow.