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PURPLE MOUNTAINS Purple Mountains gets 8.5/10


Purple Mountains
Purple Mountains
Spunk/Drag City

8.5/10

The Joos are back! Well, you can’t really say that, because the Silver Jews (or ‘Joos’) were disbanded by David Berman in 2009, playing their last show in a Tennessee cave 100m underground (oddly featured in the new video to All My Happiness Is Gone). Ten years later, Berman returns with a new collection of songs and a new band, essentially New York’s Woods and friends.

Purple Mountains is very good, a welcome return to mid-Joos form. Berman’s lyrics are as clear-eyed and observant as ever, and somehow straddle the line between deep metaphysical poetry and bumper sticker/inspirational calendar fare. Which is why his lyrics are usually on the mark, instantly memorable and touching so many people. His sole book of poems, Actual Air (also on Drag City), has received a long-overdue reprinting this year, after old copies were going for hundreds of dollars. Berman has an ability to see the world from entirely new perspectives that, in hindsight, are simple yet momentous. This quality is what endears him to so many fans, and pushed the Joos into cult band status.

As with 2000s-vintage Silver Jews, Purple Mountains cranks out a serviceable alt-country backdrop to the tracks that is pleasant enough for Berman’s compositions. The first two songs, That’s Just The Way I Feel and All My Happiness Is Gone, toy with the idea of Berman fronting both bands. The opening words and notes of the new album are the same as the beginning of Have You Ever Rented A Room, the first song on The Natural Bridge (1996). And the strummed chords on All My Happiness Is Gone mirror the classic Trains Across The Sea from the debut album Starlite Walker (1994), a song every Joos fan has heard hundreds of times.

That’s Just The Way I Feel sets the lyrical bar high on the first track, with lines that feel written for the fans that have been wondering where’s he’s been: “I mean, things have not been going well/ This time I think I finally fucked myself/ You see, the life I live is sickening/ I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion/ Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in/ I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been”. Yup, sounds like our Dave. And rhyming ‘Australia’ with ‘failure’ and ‘genitalia’ is a nice Antipodean touch.

Berman is open about this album being a breakup record, having parted with Cassie, his wife of 20 years and member of Silver Jews, and many tracks reflect this. All My Happiness Is Gone is a pouring-out-the-guts lament, set to a toe-tapping upbeat number. Berman’s rich baritone is wonderful to hear – although half-spoken, there is so much nuanced emotion in the delivery, with each syllable bearing the weight of his heartbreak. Darkness and Cold, Nights That Won’t Happen and She’s Making Friends, I’m Getting Stranger also touch on the breakup themes – how it went wrong, where it has left people, the emotional fallout. These songs are affecting because Berman can’t help but to wear his heart on his sleeve, and the lyrics convey the feelings plainly.

Snow Is Falling In Manhattan is an instant classic, a slow ballad that evokes a mood of winter blues and Christmas sentimentality, and induces visions of snow falling down among the skyscrapers as you look upwards. The chorus is a reminder that it’s not just the lyrics with Purple Mountains, as it’s just a super-catchy “snow…whoa whoa whoa” repeated a few times.

Closing track Maybe I’m The Only One For Me is a loner anthem, with Berman musing about being resigned to being alone in life: “I can’t keep on pretending not to see/ Yeah, I’m starting to suspect, though I hope I’m incorrect, that maybe I’m the only one for me”. And if that’s not enough: “If no one’s fond of fucking me, maybe no one’s fucking fond of me”. It’s a fitting end to the album, and the happy jangle of the music ironically kind of fills you with a kind of hope for Dave and all the other loners in the world.

How does Purple Mountains stack up with the Silver Jews canon? Probably around the Bright Flight (2001) vicinity, as it’s more focused than the more broken down sounds of the latter 2000s albums, but not quite in the league of the classic lo-fi shambolic records from the 90s. With Purple Mountains there’s a newfound lucidity in Berman’s delivery we haven’t heard in a long time, and you don’t have to wait too long before you hear the next memorable line. Purple Mountains is a must for Silver Jews fans, and doubtless some new fans that will be drawn in by Berman’s peculiar and endearing brand of musical pop art.

PAUL DOUGHTY

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