Finding color in the music
After a decade away from music, David Berman has strayed from his previous group, Silver Jews, to debut his new project and album, Purple Mountains. His return is particularly pessimistic, though delivered tongue-in-cheek, and by making light of his otherwise serious personal issues, the resulting record is strangely comforting and beautifully honest.
“All my happiness is gone,” says Berman on the record’s second track. His words, delivered as a kind of spoken song, are sparsely surrounded by simple rhythms, guitar strumming and a recurring four-beat tambourine. This is the essential sound of each and every track on the record. The tambourine and the lyrics are in many ways the Purple Mountains of this album— ever present, understated, shining a light on the truth of reality, the sharpness of rhythms returning in every track like a mountain that will not move. As figurative as it sounds, Berman is also a poet in his day-to-day life, and these very well could be the things he intended to put across.
The shakiness of his voice, its stoicism, is so flat that it’s good. It’s believable, and the accompanying compositions are equally believable. There is no exaggeration in his music, no embellishments, and this excellently serves the message he wants to put across. It’s a dark message, but it’s his life he’s talking about, and as dark as things may get, Berman seems to find color in the music. This album is that color, his color, and it carries with it a comical kind of hope, undeniably present in each and every word he says.
On “That’s Just The Way I Feel,” Berman speaks about living a sickening life and destroyed faith, but does so in the oddest of ways. He goes on to sing about his genitalia and almost losing them to an anthill in Des Moines. According to him, “a setback can be a setup for a comeback,” and whether it’s his faith or his genitals that he’s lost, we all know that there’s hope to be found. His optimism is less obvious at times, especially off the track ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’ as he despairs, “I’m a loser, she’s a gainer.” This track, as well as “Storyline Fever,” sees Berman pairing blues-inspired guitar solos with an urge to throw an “axe against everything that exists” while simultaneously wanting to be “tantamount to cordial.” As deranged as he may sound, his lyrics are so absurd that they’re relatable. “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” finds joy in a sad yet celebratory tribute to Berman’s late mother, as he recounts the fondness of their relationship and his memories of her. “She was so good and kind to me, she was, she was, she was.”
Berman takes us on a bizarre, stark journey through his life and the things he feels, and on the final track, “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me” he finally admits that he’ll have to learn to like himself if there’s any hope for tomorrow. This is an album that continuously comes to terms with itself and with its maker, and in one way or another, we all feel as if we know Berman a bit better by the end of it. This is something which all musicians aspire to give to their listeners, though few truly succeed.
There is another side to this musical veracity, and that is the fact that Berman’s music does become a bit boring after a few listens. There is no real diversity on the record and no change to the guitar rhythms and melodies. It all starts to blend together after a while, and the monotonous nature of Berman’s voice, as brilliant as it is, does become frustrating, to say the least. It’s intense and gives no gift of release. Listeners may find themselves scratching for variation, an octave change, a modulation, or anything different from the country-blues harmonicas and tambourine rings that saturate the record. This is the album’s biggest downfall, it lacks creativity and experimentation, something to excite listeners after the novelty of satirical sadness and agreeable instrumentation has worn off.
An album should never entirely agree with itself, nor should its music be too easy to agree with, and while Purple Mountains is certainly not to everyone’s taste, it is too generic, and will not remain timeless in years to come. Berman may have found total honesty in his music, but does this vulnerability outweigh the dullness, does the plainness compliment the honesty or is it a mountain in the way of musicality, more gray than purple?