Purple Mountains: Any Way You Hear It

Photo by David Berman

David Berman of the fabled indie band Silver Jews returns with a new project after a decade-long hiatus. 

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Even after a decade of silence, David Berman had not faded from public consciousness. Since disbanding Silver Jews in 2009, the acclaimed poet and songwriter hadn’t publicly released any new material. Even his blog, Menthol Mountains, had gone quiet in 2015. But Berman continued to make news.

A surprise collaboration with The Avalanches, a co-writing credit with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach: any of this was exciting to Berman’s devoted fanbase. So in 2015 when rumblings of new Silver Jews material surfaced in the form of former band member Bob Nastanovich, hopes were high.

One night Nastanovich posted a picture online of he and Berman hanging out with Silver Jews drummer Brian Kotzur captioned: “After Jews practice tonight.” The next day Nastanovich went a step further and confirmed the band was working on new material.

News of a Silver Jews reunion exploded online, and then quickly imploded. “Bob played a prank,” Berman would tell the Nashville Scene just days later.

But the truth was, new material was in the works. It just wouldn’t be ready for four more years.

(Read about our favorite Silver Jews songs here.)

“All My Happiness Is Gone,” the first single by Berman’s new project, Purple Mountains, was released exclusively in independent record stores in May 2019. A week later the song hit the internet with an accompanying video and the announcement of a forthcoming self-titled album and tour.

Bookended by footage of the final Silver Jews show, the low- budget video features Berman sitting in front of ocean wallpaper in a spare Drag City office singing to no one in particular.

That spare office has been Berman’s home for the past year. Since he and his wife Cassie separated, he has been living alone in Illinois. They still own a house together in Nashville and Berman describes their separation as a slow process with “no inciting incident.”

“It’s just having reached an age where we both realized — I look at the next 20 years and she looks at the next 20 years and I ask her what she imagines doing for those days; they’re things that I don’t want to be doing,” he tells me on an afternoon video call.

Their separation inspired many of the songs on Purple Mountains. But it also afforded Berman one of his greatest songwriting tools: isolation. 

“Most people I know as creators, they can’t carry a thought through a whole day, much less several days of just being laser-focused on one verse trying to get it right,” he says. “Writing, for me, is not the act of a master. It is through stupidity; it’s through writing 100 bad lines, you get to the one good line. The most important skill, the most important quality that I need to get through that is just to keep my ego together and my esteem together.”

Before Berman decided to commit to the new record he tried ghostwriting for some songwriters, a period he describes as “demoralizing.” Though he did enjoy his collaboration with Dan Auerbach, the whole experience ultimately helped strengthen his resolve to finish his own record. “It wasn’t that satisfying because I didn’t have any control,” he says.

The first song Berman finished for the new record was “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” a tribute to his mother, Marilyn “Mimi” Berman, who passed away in 2014. Soon after, he compiled a shortlist of his best songs for a potential album and spent the next year and a half refining them. “It became my challenge to be able to write a record that could sit with the records that I wrote when I was younger, and it not be just talk, like it is so often,” he says. “Whenever a Bruce Springsteen album comes out, you’re always told it’s a return to form; it never is.”

With the writing process finally complete, Berman prepared to arrange the songs for a band. “I asked a couple of different people to step in and make the record with me. It wasn’t easy; I wasn’t meeting people,” Berman says dryly. “There’s a practice space down here in the basement of the building and I was practicing with the Drag City office staff, looking for something, anything that would work. Eventually I just thought of a band whose records I liked and reached out.”

Founding Woods members Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere had been listening to Silver Jews together on tour since before Woods even existed. So when Earl got an email at 5 a.m. from Berman asking if Woods would be his backing band for a new project, he and Taveniere agreed almost immediately.

“It was definitely like, ‘Let’s make this work. While he’s excited about this idea, let’s make sure we get on this,’” Taveniere tells me over the phone.

Taveniere and Earl produced the 10-song record which also features Aaron Neveu and songwriter Anna. St Louis. Most of it was recorded live with Berman occupying a booth while the Woods members were together in another room. Berman’s voice is strong and clear on Purple Mountains, and Taveniere says many of the vocals were done on the first take.

“We did a lot of different sessions of overdubs and he wanted to retry vocals,” Taveniere says. “But we ended up just using the original vocals because they were hard to match. He just kind of nailed it.”

The marriage of sound between Berman and Woods comes across as deliberate but effortless. The haphazard arrangements and sonic dissonance that came to define Silver Jews’ sound is nowhere to be seen, but something familiar remains. 

“The rehearsals and the trackings of the songs were easy, and part of me at first kind of felt bad about that,” Taveniere says. “But I realized that Silver Jews, especially the first few records, are in my musical DNA. So having David present these songs to us and say, ‘I like Woods. What you guys do is cool. If it sounds like me singing over some Woods stuff, that’s fine with me.’ That opened up this freedom where we didn’t have to really worry about it.”

Berman has high praise for Woods’ work ethic and professionalism. “They’re older millennials,” he notes. “I’d always admired the millennial generations, I’d just never really had any relationships with anyone that age. I’d always kind of dreamed of having a workforce of millennials because they seem like they’re so good at teamwork. And that’s what they were. They were very good at teamwork. They were competent and quick. They were super-skilled. They were the opposite of everyone who ever played on a Silver Jews record. No one who has ever played on a Silver Jews record had it together like those two guys.”

The final ingredient to the new sound is Anna St. Louis, a songwriter from Kansas City who recorded her vocals in about an hour during a mixing session in Los Angeles. Her haunting, beautiful voice perfectly offsets Berman’s honkytonk resolve.

Like his labelmates Will Oldham and Bill Callahan before him, Berman kicks off a new era with a new moniker. He settled on the name, Purple Mountains, which is a mondegreen of the lyrics to “America The Beautiful.”

“The lyric is ‘purple mountain majesties,’ but commonly everyone says ‘purple mountains majesty,’” Berman says. “I guess that excuses me from the accusation that I may have tried to hijack “America The Beautiful.” I always concentrated on the people who hated the Silver Jews, or were indifferent. So I like the idea of them singing “purple mountains majesty” among thousands altogether with their hands on their hearts; no way around it.”

Part of the decision to leave the Silver Jews name behind came from the beautiful finality of their dissolution. Part was to prove to himself that he didn’t need it. “It’s just like a novel that’s over; I’m not gonna go rewrite it again,” he says. 

There are many things that Berman hopes to do differently with Purple Mountains. He’s still unsure about social media, but he hopes to have a website built in the near future for info on the band and tour dates.

Touring wasn’t something Berman did for the first 16 years of Silver Jews, but he says he’s got no reservations about it this time around. He even plans to play Silver Jews material on this tour.

“It seems easy,” he says. “I’m really isolated y’know? I’m interested in going out and speaking and looking and talking again to people. And maybe look around for a place to live while I’m touring, and that includes out of the country. I’m definitely going to be looking around while I’m touring. Because I definitely don’t want to stay in Chicago. It’s a frigid, business city. I like it here, but I’m under watch too much.”

The cover art for the single “All My Happiness Is Gone” features a photo of a doorway and an exit sign. The same photo is featured on the cover for the full-length album, along with eight other images from Berman’s life, each corresponding to a different track on Purple Mountains.

“The tenth song, ‘I’m The Only One For Me,’ is represented by the photo on the back,” he says. “There’s a lot in there if you look at it that way. The dogs kind of represent me and Cassie.”

Along with the single, Berman also commissioned several remixes of “All My Happiness Is Gone,” including “All My Happiness is Wrong,” remixed by Noah Count, and “All My Happiness is Long,”  remixed by Mark Nevers, who worked with Berman on the last two Silver Jews records. A licensing issue prevented the release of a third remix done by The Avalanches.

Nevers’ take on the song features clipped recordings of Nashville poet/songwriter/legend Dave Cloud. After Cloud’s death Berman changed his middle name to Cloud in honor of his late friend.

“I always wanted to change my middle name, I hated it anyway: Craig,” Berman says. “So, when he died, that was my way of bringing him along with me and keeping the spirit of him alive.”

The theme of carrying on after losing someone is present throughout the record. “A setback can be a setup/ for a comeback if you don’t let up,” Berman sings on opening track “That’s Just The Way That I Feel,” a song that openly addresses his hiatus and new frame of mind. Some of the lyrics are pretty grim, but there is also a playfulness to them.

“Mine is not a cry for help, but an offer to provide a kind of it,” he tells me via email. “But I understand that listening to them for the first time they might read as suicide notes. Yet search the song and you’ll find no body on the premises. They really are inhabitable. You can move in right away.”

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