It took me longer than it should have to get David Berman. Like a lot of people, I was exposed to Silver Jews mainly because Stephen Malkmus had been in the band, reducing it in my mind to a Pavement side project. In reality, Silver Jews predated Pavement and was the primary vehicle for Gen X’s best lyricist. But I was never one to put lyrics first, and so it was years before I properly heard lines like “All houses dream in blueprints / Our houses dream so hard / Outside, you can see my shoeprints / I’ve been dreaming in your yard” for what they were.
Berman released one self-titled album as Purple Mountains in 2019, ten years after ending Silver Jews. Berman committed suicide shortly before going on tour to promote Purple Mountains, and it’s hard not to hear the album as a note of intent.
On opener “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” Berman sings, “Well, a setback can be a setup / For a comeback if you don’t let up / But this kind of hurtin’ won’t heal / And the end of all wanting / Is all I’ve been wanting / And that’s just the way that I feel.” It’s a characteristically pithy and pained sentiment from an artist who’d long been on record about his treatment-resistant depression.
This time though, the cloud that hangs over the first track envelops everything. The lead single is “All My Happiness Is Gone.” Other tracks: “Nights That Won’t Happen,” “Darkness and Cold.” On the innocuously named “Margaritas at the Mall,” Berman despairs, “How long can a world go on under such a subtle god?” before using the title image to describe the meaningless limbo in which humanity finds itself. The songs are more upbeat and witty than they sound, but it’s plain that Berman had crossed the line from being cynical to something more persistently tormented.
The album’s moment of respite is “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan,” which seems at first to be a lovely, simple ode to winter in the city, and the act of taking people (and cats) indoors. But gradually a metaphor is revealed, one that’s now made more powerful in the author’s absence: “Songs build little rooms in time / And housed within the song’s design / Is the ghost the host has left behind / To greet and sweep the guest inside / Stoke the fire and sing his lines.”
I can’t know if David Berman knew he was leaving when he wrote this, but he knew what he was leaving with us.