When I was in university, almost ten years ago, one seminar began with a disclaimer. We were reading a text written by modernist theorist Walter Benjamin in which, among other things, he argued that in post-World War 1 modernity, suicide was an expression of freedom. Eventually, in 1940 and on the run from the Nazis, Benjamin took his own life. Our lecturer warned us about the content in advance, emphasising that we were interested in the text from a critical point of view and offering students the opportunity not to attend if the subject matter was too affecting. I remember sitting up a bit straighter. Jesus, I thought, this must be serious stuff. He rationalised it. He wrote his way to suicide.
From 1994 until this year, David Berman released six albums as Silver Jews and one as Purple Mountains. Each one was less an album, more an opportunity to see the world through his eyes, which were unlike anybody else's. His 1999 book of poetry ‘Actual Air’ had the same function. 'Purple Mountains', released this year in May, was his first in eleven years, as good as any of the others and, more importantly, as him as any of the others.
David Berman's lyrics carved up the familiar world into obscure chunks. He could show you something new about your oldest t-shirt.
He does this trick regularly on 'Purple Mountains'. In the standout Margaritas at the Mall he collides together two images, of the exotic intoxicating cocktail and the mundane symbol of consumerism to pick at how secular capitalism stunts and skews culture. When you can get margaritas at the mall, why bother going to somewhere like Mexico? “Happy hour's got us by the balls!” he proclaims, in both the funniest line written this year and a neat expression of helplessness. Its humour, irony and incisiveness is pure Berman.
On the first listen of 'Purple Mountains' at the time of its release, it was striking (if still familiar) how dark the subject matter was. Depression, isolation, self-loathing - only this time with the backdrop of his separation from his wife (and on past albums, his salvation) Cassie. For all his esotericism, Berman also had at his disposal a dead eye for direct writing. He called it as he saw it. Or, more often on 'Purple Mountains', he called it as he felt it.
“All my happiness is gone” he sings over perhaps his cheeriest ever melody. “The end of all wanting, is all I've been wanting” he informs us on the opening track. “The light of my life is going out tonight, without a flicker of regret” is his devastatingly direct response to Cassie moving on. On first listen, this was noticeable, but maybe not surprising. On listening in retrospect, after what has happened, it's hard to bear.
On the 7th of August 2019, David Berman took his own life at 52. I read the news late that night, as I was about to go to sleep. I felt it in my stomach. I didn't go to sleep for hours. The cause of death wasn't revealed at first but I, like everyone else who listened to his music, knew immediately. Unlike with other sudden famous deaths, it was not a shock. After the initial impact, I thought that's it then, it got him in the end.
Reading that Benjamin text in university felt both shocking and exciting, almost transgressive. I remember thinking about how powerful language can be, how serious. It also felt essentially academic. I felt (foolishly) that Benjamin's eventual sad death was part of the critical dialogue, acting as a kind of validation of his work.
Listening to Purple Mountains (or Silver Jews) now is a million miles away from that feeling. The knowledge of David Berman's death doesn't authenticate or validate the incredible way he wrote about his struggles. The feeling is not transgression or excitement, but deep sadness.
Berman didn't write indulgently or self-aggrandisingly or even self-pityingly about his depression and his difficulties in the world. He wrote in defiance of it. The knowledge that he was in such a perpetual state of suffering makes his writing all the more miraculous, like an Olympic gold medalist carrying a boulder on their back.
His lines weren't written to rationalise anything or in service of anything. They just expressed how he saw the world, how beautiful and funny and hard life could be, often all in the same couplet. They resonated so deeply with so many, and 'Purple Mountains' will go down as one of the most devastating albums in indie-rock history. Every line he wrote was a gift to the world, the kind of voice that you hear once and something new in your mind is unlocked, something added to the air, forever.