Before one decides to dive into the quasi-retrospective about the storied career of David Berman and the review and contextualization of his final album: Purple Mountains, a warning is going to be issued as this article will be discussing topics of suicide, drug dependence, and depression. It would be impossible to discuss David’s music without also looking at his personal life and how it influenced the works he poured into this world.
To begin with, David Berman was the mastermind behind the criminally underrated band Silver Jews. They were an indie rock band with some alt-country leanings active between 1989 and 2009. Regardless of the reason why he decided to dissolve the band in 2009, a hiatus was taken: a hiatus that would last a decade. Events that transpired during this hiatus provided the framework to which he constructed most of the songs off of Purple Mountains.
The music of the Silver Jews and the personal life of David will forever be entwined with each other. A major influence being his parents; both of whom had a profound impact on his music as a whole—each for entirely different reasons. David’s father, Richard Berman, was a world-renowned boot licker, lobbying for various industries such as firearms and alcohol. Routinely, he would publicly attack and smear public interest groups. He was particularly fond of discrediting labor unions, and actively had a hand in the continued stagnation of the federal minimum wage.
Because of his father’s love for the boot, David always harbored resentment towards him, which is quite apparent on the songs Dallas and How to Rent a Room. On a more positive note, David’s relationship with his mother appeared to be resplendent and bursting with mutual love. Now, to quickly snatch away that positive note and replace it with something disastrous, fate plunged its jagged knife into David’s life as his mother, Mimi, passed away in 2016, planting one of the seeds that would eventually blossom into Purple Mountains.
A towering influence that hangs over his work would be his partner, Cassie. She frequently made vocal and instrumental appearances on the later albums in the Silver Jews’ discography. As is the theme in David’s life, tragedy seeped into a sanctuary; circumstances changed and he and Cassie separated during his hiatus. If the death of his mother planted a seed, this separation planted an orchard that would bear the depressing fruit of Purple Mountains.
The circumstances of his life are anything but cheery, and unsurprisingly, he was diagnosed with depression and personally described it as “treatment-resistant depression”. All of these previous life events coalesce and weave themselves into his music as he attempts to synthesize his pain and sadness into profound meditations on the human condition—often succeeding in providing momentary comfort in a world that is, at times, ruled by randomness.
Part 1:In 1984, I Was Hospitalized for Approaching Perfection – “Random Rules”
Being candid about his personal problems, whether it be his dependency on drugs, depression, or any other issue, was a hallmark of David’s songs. Life is brutal more times than not; problems mount on top of other problems, ascending to the sky like some terrible game of Tetris. When the pieces eventually crumple under their weight, everything breaks: relationships suffer, personal health suffers, mental health suffers, and everything, in some way or another, suffers.
Diving back into the opening lyric, David struggled with drug dependence for most of his life, and as a consequence, spiraled into fits of self-destruction. In the moment, it’s pure bliss, but this chase for perfection often leads to one’s demise. What David seems to be saying with this is to take perspective, self-reflect, and analyze the actions being committed. Sometimes the thing being done is destructive and goes against self-interest, and admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to accept an admission of fault. It’s a difficult reality to put oneself in, but David makes living in that reality comfortable. Another brilliant lyric that showcases much of this same sentiment appears on We Are Real: “Is the problem that we can’t see? Or is it that the problem is beautiful to me?” Life is brutal, and goes by so fast one can’t process much of anything. It is only until after everything is over that the mistakes are made blisteringly apparent. In a moment, a moment is gone. Take care to slow down every once in a while and orient the compass to where it needs to be. A key tenant of David’s music is, therefore, to recognize when things are bad and to foster a want to make things better.
Part 2: Hello, my friends – “Introduction II”
The long dark of the pandemic lingers on, casting shadows on even the brightest places. Perhaps due to that prolonged isolation that the entire world was plunged into, loneliness was allowed purchase in even the most amazing of days. Maybe this loneliness is an emotional loneliness or maybe it’s a more physical loneliness? Whatever the case, an uptick in lonely people in the world is being observed. Due to this, David’s music is all the more important now than it was back then.
Throughout his career, he has made songs that resonate so profoundly with people at the end of their wits, offering a moment of mutual understanding in the turbulence of life. The entirety of Honk If You’re Lonely can make even the most entrenched feelings of loneliness flutter away for a moment; this effect is owed to David’s witty and endlessly quotable lyrics. He treats these difficult subjects with reverence but also a charismatic unseriousness. He recognizes the direness of the personal problems that plague everyone because he is also plagued by these same problems. He, being both candid and relatable, brings the listener in, perhaps beneath an afghan, and allows them to express their vulnerabilities and worries to an old friend.
Trying to pin down the core message of David’s art is difficult as there are many wonderful messages that would fit the bill; empowerment of the self, being kind when kindness seems insane, even the slowing down of life are all key tenants to his overall artistic vision. With that being said, one message rings out clearer than all: the unheard becoming heard.
Part 3: Anchor Lets You See the River Move – “How to Rent a Room”
The circumstances of one’s life can shift in just a moment; things being lost or gained in the process of the shift. Acclimating to this change is difficult. There’s a want to revert or progress when these things sadly aren’t always possible at that moment. Stagnation sets in and festers within the heart. Desperately, a clambering occurs for something, anything to change, which spurs rashness to take center stage. The desperation fades away, yet the stagnation remains.
Throughout his career, David always was quick to call in to question an unmitigated march towards personal progress. On People, he warns, “People be careful not to crest too soon”. To use the tired example of scaling a mountain, once the peak has been reached, the only thing that’s achieved is both the act and becoming a veritable lightning rod of anxiety and despair while stagnation creeps in. With no energy to climb down from the peak of accomplishment, the way down becomes both treacherous and slippery; oftentimes, making the once intrepid explorer morph into a massive ball of powder, tumbling down to wherever fate decides they should lay—strange victory, strange defeat. To be clear, no blame should be placed on the self for this. Perhaps the only object of blame should be how quickly humanity has set the pace of life.
Now, how to fix this stagnation? Set the anchor and watch the river move as David might suggest. Stagnation permits one to focus on the environment surrounding them. Plainly put, there’s not much else to do; routine sets in like a terrible hangover, and inevitably, one makes pleas to the future self to never allow that dizzying, vomitous war that plays out every morning to ever be waged again. Still, we all know that the routine will be back again in the morning. Don’t become lost in the stagnation; use it to accumulate passions and directions, and when a path forward out of the stagnation reveals itself, bound into it running.
Purple Mountains; Purple Valleys: the Review and Contextualization
Up to this point, Purple Mountains has been sparsely mentioned. This was deliberate as David’s history needed to be established before this deeply personal and final entry of his musical career is dissected and reviewed. To recap, David was the frontman for the indie rock/ alt-country band Silver Jews, which was active between 1989-2009. In 2009, he disbanded the band and took a 10 year hiatus from music and public life, accumulating tragedy after tragedy in the interim. These tragedies and his past coalesced into Purple Mountains, which was released on July 12th, 2019.
In a shift from his usual lyrical style of vague poetry hovering around a central theme like a vulture, Purple Mountains is direct—depressingly so. Tracks like All My Happiness is Gone, That’s Just the Way I Feel, and I Loved Being My Mother’s Son all exemplify this directness perfectly. He speaks openly about wanting the end of all wanting, all his happiness being gone, and things, in general, not going so well. Despondency and loneliness are baked into every corner of this album. The separation between him and Cassie and the death of his mother echo loudly throughout the project as David muses on about how he’s becoming a stranger to people he once knew, “Lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go. Some of them were once people I was happy to know”. The listener is placed directly into a grief-stricken mind and pressed against all of the suffocatingly strong emotions associated with it. It’s a depressing listen all the way through, and made even more depressing in the aftermath of his death on August 7th, 2019.
On to the instrumentation now, the twangy country guitar elements and driving drums complement the depressed and haggard voice of David Berman in an uplifting way. For the majority of the album, there’s a disconnect between the searingly delightful instrumentation and the heart-wrenching lyrics being sung by David. This disconnect works to the album’s benefit. It makes the depressing lyrics subdued slightly, making the songs as a whole seem a little tongue-in-cheek in their expression of these serious themes. For any other artist, it might not have worked as well, but given his long history with being plagued by these emotions, it seems to be a deliberate means to cope with the depressing subject matter of his words. There needs to be a light somewhere in the darkness and the instrumentation is that light. That is not to say the album doesn’t contain moments where the instrumentation is as despondent as the lyrics: Nights That Won’t Happen being both lyrically devastating and instrumentally devastating. The slow, thumping drums, gentle acoustic guitar strums, and introspective piano melodies create a stark and pensive atmosphere that the lyrics take full advantage of.
Due to the subject matter of Nights That Won’t Happen, it’s easily the most devastating track on the entire album. In the context of the album at release, it appears to be a song about his mother’s death. The preceding track is I Loved Being My Mother’s Son, which is almost equally as devastating as David recounts, in a breaking voice, all of the wonderful things his mother did for him growing up and how impactful she was on his life as a whole.
Given how I Loved Being My Mother’s Son precedes Nights That Won’t Happen, it appears that it represents David coming to terms with his mother’s death. He laments woefully, “When the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides, all the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind”. Another depressing lightning bolt of lyrical genius, “Ghosts are just old houses dreaming people in the night. Have no doubt about it, hon, the dead will do alright”. A central theme to this song is the transfer of suffering from the deceased to the living. One can make the argument he’s referring to his mother’s death, but his suicide on August 7th casts a very, very long shadow over this entire project. In that context, it’s so difficult to hear anything other than him telling the world goodbye. Songs like Darkness and Cold and Snow is Falling in Manhattan even have their meanings morphed when put in that depressing light. What then does this entire project mean? Purple Mountains was David’s swan song: a suicide note detailing why he made the decision he did, and how we should all go forward from it and come to terms with his death.
Personally, Snow is Falling in Manhattan is my favorite track of the album. It offers a means to come to terms with his death. Through lyrics like, “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,” and, “Snow is falling in Manhattan. Inside, I’ve got a fire crackling, and on the couch beneath an afghan, you’re the old friend I just took in” He acknowledges the void his passing would bring and points towards all of the encouraging and comforting words he’s been dumping into the world with his music. Becoming lost in David’s songs and hearing the comforting words present within said songs is the best way to come to terms with his death. David may be gone, but his spirit lives on within his songs.
Closing (Personal) Statements:
When times are full of strife, loneliness, and division as things appear to be now, David’s words find the most purchase. Somewhere within his songs, an answer to whatever question you may have may be found. He is relentlessly witty and inspiring. Always when things in my life are shifting terribly towards oblivion, David is right there on the periphery of this black hole I’m being sucked into, pointing past it: at the stars shining so brightly beyond my sight that I have just now noticed because of him. Life is both beautiful and brutal. Throughout his artistic career, David sought to make living with tragedy more comfortable. It even can feel personal when things turn sour, but David’s art depersonalizes it and that sure makes it more manageable.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I miss him. His music and poetry brought meaning and dignity to people’s lives. The world’s dimmer now without him, but he’ll always be here, existing in the things he left for us to remember him by. Now he’s a picture on the mantle above the fireplace, a smiling person in a scrapbook. With Purple Mountains, David gave us all one final masterpiece to remember him by before he traveled on to brighter fields.
Truly, thank you for getting this far. This topic is incredibly important to me, and I really wanted to do David justice, which hopefully warranted the length of this article. Due to the seriousness of the topics discussed, if you or anyone you may know is having thoughts about suicide or self-harm, please reach out to someone. I understand the world can seem so utterly bereft of hope: especially in times like these. There’s a beautiful future beyond it all. I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy to make this future realized, but a good first step in creating it is taking care of yourself: at least, as best you can muster. Don’t deny the world your blinding light. Even if you can’t see that light, it’s there and others bask in it. For those that need it, The suicide and crisis lifeline number is 988, and the number for CAPS here at KU is (785) 864-2277. Take care, everyone.
Sleep soundly, David. The world is brighter because of you.