Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Nights That Won’t Happen: Listening to Purple Mountains After David Berman


Nights That Won’t Happen: Listening to Purple Mountains After David Berman

by Kevin M. Kearney


On August 7th, David Berman, the poet and songwriter, died at the age of 52. Soon after the initial announcement, The New York Times reported that he had taken his own life, but I had already assumed that—I’d imagine anyone else familiar with his career did, too. 

I know this may sound cruel, especially considering the recent news, but what I loved about Berman’s work, and his music in particular, was its sadness. He had the rare ability to be morose, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at once. To be a fan of Berman was to know that this was someone who’d had a hard life, yet still felt the urge to laugh. His latest album, July’s tremendous Purple Mountains, didn’t suggest that life had grown easier with age. He’d lost his mother, been separated from his wife, and still resented his father, a notorious D.C. lobbyist whom he publicly disavowed in 2009. That was the same year that he dissolved his band, Silver Jews, and did his best to fade into obscurity. 

Silver Jews performing at Webster Hall on March 17, 2006 |  Reuben Strayer

Silver Jews performing at Webster Hall on March 17, 2006 | Reuben Strayer

On Purple Mountains’s opening track, Berman describes his ten years away from the public eye as “a decade playing chicken with oblivion.” In an interview announcing his return, Berman mentioned he’d spent most of that time by himself, reading. My first thought was: that sounds like a dream. My second was: that sounds unimaginably lonely. But I quickly ignored that voice because, hey, we had a new David Berman album. Maybe it takes a decade of isolation to make something truly great. 

Announced just a month before its release, Purple Mountains was an unexpected gift to his small but devoted legion of followers. It was billed as a comeback, and rightfully so—it’s some of the best songwriting of his career. He was clean, he was touring, and in interviews he seemed upbeat, even optimistic about the future. “I don’t want to throw people off anymore,” he told The Ringer. “I don’t want to bullshit. I want to mean.”

He’d meant it. A passing glance at the album’s song titles (like lead single “All My Happiness Is Gone”) would tell anyone, even someone unfamiliar with Berman’s personal life, that this was someone who was struggling. Upon its release, critics noted the especially grim lyrics, but did their best to push them to the side. Pitchfork noted that “few writers are so willing to submit to their lowest depths to make you feel less alone.” Rolling Stone wrote that, “Purple Mountains is the sound of that guy starting to come to terms with his reality, and maybe building a new emotional architecture in the wreckage. In any case, keep ’em coming. The journey is worth it.” Much of the critical reception followed a similar formula: yes, this is unbelievably depressing, but have you considered this silver lining? 

David Berman of the Silver Jews plays his final show in an underground cave |  Ro Tam

David Berman of the Silver Jews plays his final show in an underground cave | Ro Tam

I’m not suggesting I didn’t do the same. It was easy to forget the darkness of the record because there were just enough soaring, anthemic hooks and wry observations to focus on instead. But “forget” is too passive. The more fitting word is “ignore.” After years of nothing, the character of David Berman had provided me with fresh content—clever turns-of-phrase, twangy hooks, aw-shucks nihilism, and everything else I’d come to expect from a classic Silver Jews record. I wanted to enjoy it without having to think about what it was actually saying. It was dark, sure, but wasn’t a lot of great art? 

A few days after his suicide, Drag City, Berman’s long time record label, posted an obituary. “It feels like there’s little more to say about David’s place in the world right now that he hasn’t already said himself,” it read. “Some of his incredible turns of phrase seem to have been written for this awful moment. But know that they weren't. They were written in lieu of this moment, to replace this moment, showing the world (and himself) that maybe he didn't truly know what was going to happen next.” I consider myself a mostly optimistic person, so I like this sentiment. I want to believe it, and I try to keep it in mind when I listen to Purple Mountains now. For a while, it works. But then I get to “Nights That Won’t Happen,” the album’s penultimate track: 

Ghosts are just old houses dreaming people in the night, 
Have no doubt about it, hon, the dead will do alright, 
Go contemplate the evidence and I guarantee you'll find, 
The dead know what they're doing when they leave this world behind 

Listening to Purple Mountains after Berman’s death can feel improper, even disrespectful. The other day, a friend asked that I turn the record off because it was too depressing, and I couldn’t disagree. It’s impossible to listen to the album without hearing a line that seems to scream suicidal ideation. The songs haven’t changed, obviously, I’ve just been reminded that the voice singing them was a real person. Fandom has many pitfalls, but the greatest might be that idolizing someone and objectifying them aren’t all that different. 

In her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrestled with the ethics of passively interacting with the portrayals of others’ suffering. What’s the difference between an appreciator and a gawker? Where is the line between valuable art and atrocity porn? Anyone who doesn’t actively seek to help those portrayed, she argues, are voyeurs, “whether or not we mean to be.” Still, she concludes by arguing that these images are nonetheless important. “Let the atrocious images haunt us,” she writes. “Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: this is what human beings are capable of doing.”

Purple Mountains doesn’t make sense of Berman’s death. Nothing can do that. I’d like to say that after a while these songs are comforting, like letters left behind assuring everyone that it all worked out, but they aren’t. All I can hear is someone trying in vain to balance his natural light with an overwhelming sense of dread. I know that doesn’t sound like an enjoyable listen, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. I can’t ask for much more than that: David Berman was a real person, he was human.

  1. Index photo thanks to Rebecca Gillespie: “Silver Jews. October 12, 2008. Exit/In, Nashville.” [Source]