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David Berman: Indie rock’s modern poet

  • ‘Purple Mountain’ is Berman’s first album in more than 10 years
  • Berman, earlier with the band Silver Jews, writes with wry wit but also tender emotion

David Berman, who made his name with Silver Jews, has resurfaced with Purple Mountains.
David Berman, who made his name with Silver Jews, has resurfaced with Purple Mountains. (Photo: Getty Images)

Had my mother lived just a few more years, she would have turned 90 this year. Like most people who have lost parents, my thoughts about her keep recurring, coming back unexpectedly but always with great intensity. Late last month, when I heard David Berman, poet, cartoonist and songwriter, sing I Loved Being My Mother’s Son, my memories of her came back in a rush. Berman’s new project, Purple Mountains, by his new band of the same name, is the multi-talented musician’s first album in more than 10 years after he abruptly dissolved his earlier band, Silver Jews, and disappeared from public life.

On that song, which he had written soon after he lost his mother, Berman sings: “She helped me walk, she watched me run/ She got where I was coming from/And when I couldn’t count my friends on a single thumb/ I loved her to the maximum." Schooled in graduate studies in creative writing, Berman is a modern-day poet who writes with wry wit but also tender emotion. He has also had an unusual career. By the time he disappeared after disbanding Silver Jews, the band had released six albums. His other bandmates then were guitarist Stephen Malkmus (better known as the frontman of the lo-fi indie rock band Pavement) and drummer Bob Nastanovich. The three were roomies in New York and their music had a spontaneous do-it-yourself, made-in-the-bedroom feel. But most of all, it had Berman’s lyrics–literate, sardonic and clever.

It could also be dark, as on one of their best albums, Tanglewood Numbers (2005), released after Berman had fought a bout of serious drug addiction and had attempted to commit suicide. In 2000, when Al Gore was holed up in a Nashville hotel, shunning the press and awaiting the results of the (in)famous recount in his US presidential contest against George W. Bush, Berman, overdosed on a cocktail of crack cocaine and Xanax, had landed up at the hotel, announcing to the staff: “I want to die where the presidency died!"

Unlike his relationship with his mother, Berman was estranged from his father, mainly because the senior Berman is a major lobbyistfor oil, liquor and arms companies, popular with Republicans. When he disappeared, it was ostensibly to write a takedown of his father’s work, a project that has not yet seen fruition.

But Berman’s reappearance with Purple Mountains, a set of 10 songs composed along with Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere of Woods, an indie folk band from Brooklyn, New York, is delightful. The men from Woods deliver powerful music, replete with Americana’s country hues but also with the full flavours of rock. It’s an apt backdrop to what are till date Berman’s best lyrical compositions. The themes of the songs are sometimes personal—the break-up of his marriage, and losing his mother—but they also deal with more universal issues such as death’s inevitability, despair over religion and God, and the fractious state of the world.

Berman has a baritone voice and sings with a mild touch of torment, but that gets evened out by the recurring dry humour in his lyrics. On Margaritas At The Mall, he sings: We’re just drinking margaritas at the mall/ This happy hour’s got us by the balls/ Magenta, orange, acid green/ Peacock blue and mercury/ Drinking margaritas at the mall. The standout song on Purple Mountains is All My Happiness Is Gone, which, with its pop hooks, is an unusually upbeat take on what is essentially, as the title suggests, an unhappy theme.

That’s what makes Berman’s music singular. He can sing about the darkest, gloomiest thoughts and feelings and make them sound lively and enjoyable. His cartoons share similar attributes—the humour in them is so subtle that it could be an inside joke others fail to grasp. For TheLowbrow Reader, a comedy journal from New York City, he once did a scrawled sketch of a head-banging metalhead wearing a T-shirt with a Lowbrow logo. On top, however, it said Iron Maiden in that famous band’s trademark font, with the E in the second word being added with a small v, as you would when you hand-edited a misspelt word.

On a closer listen to Purple Mountains, you may be able to discern themes within themes. Each sequenced pair of songs appears to be related. For instance, I Loved Being My Mother’s Son is followed by Nights That Won’t Happen, a song about death and dying on which he sings:The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind/ When the here and the hereafter momentarily align. Or, on Darkness And Cold (on which he sings about how the “light of his life" is going out with someone she just met), which is followed by Snow Is Falling In Manhattan, whose lyrics are an allegorical reference to loss and separation.

Literate and profound, Berman’s lyrics could affect you in different ways, depending on your own experiences, thoughts and the state of mind you are in when you listen to his songs. Poet-songwriters have always had that effect on me: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Matt Berninger (of The National)…the list is long. All these writers are versatile, uncompromising and innovative, and they are always able to create a deep impact by connecting to your own deepest feelings and life experiences. Berman’s writing has that quality.

When he was with Silver Jews, the band never got the recognition it deserved. One reason for that was because Malkmus’ Pavement—an underground cult band with a huge influence—became big, overshadowing Silver Jews. But the back catalogue of that first project by Berman is a lyrical treat waiting to be rediscovered.

With Purple Mountains, however, Berman has soared even higher and proved that he is truly a towering lyricist.


Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’ by Purple Mountains from ‘Purple Mountains’

2. ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’ by Purple Mountains from ‘Purple Mountains’

3. ‘Snow Is Falling In Manhattan’ by Purple Mountains from ‘Purple Mountains’

4. ‘Random Rules’ by Silver Jews from ‘American Water’

5. ‘Punks In The Beerlight’ by Silver Jews from ‘Tanglewood Numbers’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter: @sanjoynarayan

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