Published Jun 27, 2019Ten years since retiring Silver Jews and retreating from public life, David Berman has triumphantly returned with a fantastic and revealing collection of new songs under the project name Purple Mountains. On July 12, Drag City will release their self-titled debut, a new album that Berman cautiously tells Exclaim! in an interview might well be among his greatest works yet.
"Yeah, I'm hesitant to say so," he says on a Skype call from the Drag City office in Chicago, "because I've grown up as a student of rock history and I've seen so many older musicians talk about their 'return to form' or a particular late work that might, during the press cycle, have everyone excited but then everyone forgets later on. I'm wary of saying that I think this is as strong as my earlier work, but I do."
Berman agreed to go through each song on the new album and discuss their origins and, on some occasions, their lyrical themes. As you'll see, the songs are raw and confessional and reveal much about the iconic yet enigmatic underground poet and musician.
1. "That's Just the Way I Feel"
Exclaim!: This song feels like a catch-up for fans, a stocktaking of what you've been up to since you retired from public life.
David Berman: Yeah, I had the idea that I could be pretty honest. I've never been afraid to be autobiographical, and these songs are very autobiographical. This is just an opening and an introduction to the record.
2. "All My Happiness Is Gone"
These first two songs feature very dark, sad content but are packaged in jolly arrangements. Is that purposeful?
Yeah, once the song is written, it just complexifies the profile of it to have the music and the words at odds. It comes naturally to me. A lot of my music is like that. For a long time, I've struggled very, very much with what people call treatment-resistant depression. It never goes away from me and I'm surprised I've made it this far, really, in life. There were probably 100 nights over the last 10 years where I was sure I wouldn't make it to the morning. Yeah, I'm a very depressed person. I felt even worse about myself as time went on and I wasn't doing anything. I do feel better now, having completed this project.
3. "Darkness and Cold"
There are many things going on on this album but it strikes me that it's very much a 'break-up' record.
Right. Well, Cassie [his wife] and I have been married for 20 years. When I quit music 10 years ago, I really retreated into myself. She went on to get a degree and is very people-focused and nature-focused — all the things I'm not. We never had the kind of conflict that results in divorce but we have the kind of need to live our lives without the other one. We got into a multi-polar trap where everything I was for, she was against, and vice-versa. Yeah, the story's there in the songs.
4. "Snow Is Falling in Manhattan"
This one feels a bit less about personal relationships somehow. Maybe some climate change observations?
Well, it's a tricky song. I started writing it and there was a guy on a porch sweeping his stoop, as it was snowing. I didn't feel like I could write from the perspective of someone who owned a brownstone in Manhattan. But then I started thinking in terms of a caretaker and I realized, after a while, the caretaker could be a metaphor for the singer who's the voice of the song and that the listener would realize, after a while, that when I describe the caretaker bringing a cold friend into the house, by the end of the song you realize that the listener is that person and that I'm the host that's left this ghost behind — the voice.
5. "Margaritas at the Mall"
Here, you sing, 'How long can the world go on with such a subtle God? / How long can the world go on with no new word from God?' This is an existential song, isn't it?
Yeah, definitely — definitely cosmological disappointment. The world of commerce is a kind of a purgatory itself. The church created the doctrine of purgatory so people could do business. Purgatory really came up with capitalism and allowed people some religious freedom in a certain kind of way because they weren't completely held back from money-lending or bankers.
6. "She's Making Friends, I'm Turning Stranger"
This is both a funny and sad turn of phrase. Where does it stem from?
It's just a play on words that you'd find in a country song. This one has a happy ending and it wasn't true to life. But it's also true to life — Cassie and I are still friends, still have the same bank account, we own a house together. She's really my family; she's all I have. It's been difficult to disentangle ourselves or separate.
7. "I Loved Being My Mother's Son"
The meaning of this is all in the lyrics really but what do you want to say about it?
Oh, well, I guess this was the first song that I wrote [for this album]. It was self-soothing. It was immediately after my mom's death, when I was just hanging out in her little house. Something about playing the guitar — the vibration of the wood against your chest… that's really when I picked up the guitar again. I think it was like meditation, but it was also like massage. I played these simple chords and I knew it was about my mom but it didn't have any words. I knew from the uplift and the sweetness in it.
8. "Nights That Won't Happen"
I view this as your philosophical take on death. "The dead know what they're doing when they leave this world behind / All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind." This song is related, I assume, to the loss of your mother.
Yeah, yeah, her and a few friends. It's a burn-the-bridges-type song, and there's probably some anger in it too. But it's like the early years of your marriage, when you have all of these hopes and dreams, and then thinking about what won't happen with someone because they're dead or you're separated.
9. "Storyline Fever"
This song has an almost proto-rap feel to it. "You've got storyline fever, storyline flu…" What's up with this one?
I made that up and it's basically CBT therapy. 'Storyline fever' would be when your mind is captured by a narrative of some kind, whether it be romantic, spiritual, or political. But how storylines tend to drive us, and how we see the world through them. So 'storyline fever' is just slang for being carried away. That storyline might be that things will never get better or that I'm all washed up. That's where I put the funny lines.
10. "Maybe I'm the Only One for Me"
This has a classic country music motif, but it feels very honest too. Is this how you're really feeling?
Well, yeah, in a way it is. I don't have any desire to be in a relationship with anyone else, and I do feel like I'm on the other side of my career of being a Lothario. I have a very low sex drive and I'm not interested in a relationship. But I was also speaking to the reality of the fate of young involuntary celibates. This is definitely from an incel's perspective, and I also realize it's also the ultimate neo-liberal love song, as we sit in a place of peak individualism. It's not the kind of message I'm proud to spread. I don't intend it to be a love song to the self — it's more of an 'I'm stuck with myself' song. If no one wants to fuck you, it's your fault.
Listen to this interview with David Berman on the Kreative Kontrol podcast on Apple Podcasts or below: