David Berman has had a life full flamboyant bleakness. A one-time crack addict, he once deliberately overdosed and headed to the same hotel room Al Gore awaited the 2000 election re-count in, saying: “I want to die where the presidency died!” After his band Silver Jews broke up in 2009 (“Before we got bad”) he became a hermit, his wife eventually leaving him. He also revealed his longtime hatred for his Washington lobbyist father, and quit music to write a takedown exposé him, which hasn’t emerged.
All that misanthropy and mordant wit has been condensed into new project Purple Mountains, made with US indie-folk band Woods who play handsomely arranged, slightly drowsy Americana backings (the obvious touchstone is Range Life by Pavement, members whom Berman has previously recorded with). These prop up what will likely be the best lyric sheet the year. There is misfortune, both drily fantastical – “I met failure in Australia / I fell ill in Illinois / I nearly lost my genitalia to an anthill in Des Moines” – and painfully real, as on the paradoxically jaunty-sounding symphonic pop tune All My Happiness Is Gone. Like Stephin Merritt or Kurt Wagner, fellow glum-but-wry types with whom he seems to sit in a line – perhaps at a shitty bar on a Tuesday night – he can do much with a real-world detail: “This happy hour’s got us by the balls”, he notes on Margaritas at the Mall, a song about faith in an era that constantly challenges it. Storyline Fever is a spunky takedown Trump (or perhaps his old man). There’s aphoristic poetry too, whether sentimental (“Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old”) or gothic (“Death is a black camel that kneels down so we can ride”), and even a lovely song about his mum: “She got where I was coming from / when I couldn’t count my friends on a single thumb.”
Is Berman’s relish in his vocal delivery, and the robust instrumentation, his way telling us that he’s actually doing OK underneath it all? Hopefully. Cries for help have rarely been so clear, self-aware, and funny.