After a decade away from music, cult singer/songwriter David Berman returned with Purple Mountains, a project that deepened and refined the witty and profound country-rock of his previous band, the Silver Jews. On 2019's Purple Mountains, he wove his personal losses into songs informed by the larger traditions of country songwriting, making for some of the most direct yet idiosyncratic music under any of his guises. Born in Williamsburg, Virginia, Berman lived in Reston until his parents divorced when he was seven years old. With his mother living in her hometown of Wooster, Ohio, and his dad working as a lobbyist in Dallas, Berman attended high school in nearby Addison. In 1989, he formed the Silver Jews with guitarist/singer Stephen Malkmus and drummer Bob Nastanovich, a pair of former University of Virginia classmates who had played with Berman in the band Ectoslavia during their college days. After graduation, they moved to New York, sharing an apartment and playing noisy, often improvised songs that they recorded on friends' answering machines. After signing to Drag City, the Silver Jews held to their ultra-lo-fi aesthetic and recorded their early releases for the label on a Walkman. Berman and company began to refine their literate, lyrical, country and noise-inspired rock on 1994's Starlite Walker, which they recorded at Memphis' historic 24-track Easley-McCain studios. On later albums like 1998's American Water and 2001's Bright Flight (which also featured Berman's wife, Cassie, on a few tracks), the Silver Jews' sound became more refined, letting Berman's poetic lyrics and reflective vocals take center stage. After taking a few years to deal with depression and substance abuse, Berman and the Jews resurfaced with 2005's Tanglewood Numbers, which the band supported with its first-ever tour. Three years later, the Silver Jews issued the relatively lighthearted Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. In January 2009, Berman posted on Drag City's message board that he was retiring from music and that his father was Richard Berman, a lobbyist for alcohol and firearms industries. After the Silver Jews played their final show at Tennessee's Cumberland Caverns, Berman attempted to write a book about his father; when HBO wanted to adapt the book into an hour-long series, he put an end to the project. Berman slowly began making music again over the next few years, first collaborating with the Avalanches on the 2012 single "A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart" and on the song "Saturday Night Inside Out" from their 2016 album Wildflower, and then co-producing Yonatan Gat's 2018 album Universalists. With his mother's death in 2016, Berman started writing songs again in earnest, incorporating details of his life into a more traditional songwriting approach. After connecting with Woods' Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere, Berman and the rest of Woods -- as well as their friend, singer/songwriter Anna St. Louis -- recorded these songs in a handful of days at Chicago's Jamdek studio. Berman adopted the name Purple Mountains for this project, and its self-titled debut appeared in July 2019. It proved to be Berman's final musical statement; he died on August 7, 2019.
© Heather Phares /TiVo
© Heather Phares /TiVo
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Rock - Released July 12, 2019 | Drag City
Ten years after the end of The Silver Jews, David Berman appeared back on the scene with Purple Mountains, much to the surprise of most. It must have come as a shock to fans of the cult songwriter, who would have an even bigger shock in store a month after the release of the eponymous album when the musician committed suicide. Cut off from the world of music, he who had opted for a decade of silence suddenly produced ten masterpieces, narrating his long retirement as well as the death of his mother, his complicated relationship with his wife and of course his chronic depression. A heavy programme which nonetheless doesn’t stop this album of flamboyant folk and silky country from shining and following in the footsteps of Townes Van Zandt, another great country star who wallowed in despair and loneliness. The production by members of the band Woods also helps to embellish every song: vibraphone, Mellotron, Hammond organ, pedal steel guitar, trumpets and bass accompany this poetic journey through depression and melancholy which also doesn’t shy away from humour on occasion. © Marc Zisman/Qobuz