Purple Mountains – s/t (Drag City)

I wrote David Berman a letter over twenty years ago. At the time, I was inquiring to see if he would be interested in recording a Jandek cover for my then fledgling label who was organizing a tribute album to the mysterious Texan. I never heard anything. Years went by, and the record I was working on eventually came out. Then one day out of the blue, a printed postcard popped in my label’s PO Box, it was basically the post card equivalent of an away message from him. It explained how behind on correspondence he was. Even in the early aughts, it was a gentlemanly and quaint way to communicate. Sadly, no Jandek cover ever materialized, and in some ways to me, his final album credited to the Purple Mountains feels a lot like that postcard. Lost in time, and arriving at a time when you need it most.

In my few years of experience writing record reviews to what feels at times like an invisible readership, I’ve found that there’s a risk you run talking about an album that you’ve gotten too close to. Things usually seem to turn out better when there’s some degree of distance between yourself and the material or artist at hand going into the experience. So, I’m going a bit against my own rules by attempting to tackle this album. To make matters more complicated, when I started this review DC Berman was here, and now he is gone. This devastating loss will forevermore cast a shadow on this amazing set of songs that teem with dark humor, melancholy and his unmistakable brand of poetic beauty. It seems trivial now to go on about how wonderful the Stones informed groove is on “Darkness and Cold,” or the shimmering ethereal beauty of “Snow is Falling in Manhattan,” especially in light of what happened.

There’s a Dylan lyric that goes, “You can always comeback, but you can’t come back all the way.” Berman returned for one last set of richly rewarding songs that detailed a life teetering on the brink of the abyss.  After a year ten year absence, he offered the world a final clutch of deeply autobiographical songs that wrestled with universal feelings as earnest as a Mother’s love, the legacy an artist leaves behind, the problem of a subtle God, and deep feelings of loneliness.  This tragedy will now make it impossible for some to view these songs as anything more than a harbinger of the ending that was soon to follow. Which is a shame, considering how much this album has to offer the world independent of the fate of its creator. He was one of the best songwriters my generation had. We should all feel fortunate he left behind so much art that will continue to inspire, entertain, and comfort us in the sad times ahead. He even managed to leave us one last parting gift. We should all treat it accordingly.

Order the album via Drag City.

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