By Gianni de Falco
The following article will appear in the ORB Autumn 2020 Issue, to be launched in October. Originally inspired by Drag City's hardback repress of David Berman's Actual Air, its earlier online publication coincides with the one year anniversary of Purple Mountains.
David Berman, Drag City, 2019
David Berman, Drag City, 2019
On 17 May 2019, songwriter and poet David Berman returned after ten silent years with ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’, the first single from his new project, Purple Mountains. He had disbanded Silver Jews, the alt-country outfit he had fronted since 1992, with a diptych of posts on his label Drag City’s message board in 2009. Revealing his father was Richard Berman—a former fast food, pro-gun, and anti-labour lobbyist turned PR mogul for all flavours of corporate interest— David Berman said goodbye to music in want of a more political path as a corrective to the damage done by his father’s empire. Little attention was paid and virtually nothing written on Berman during his radio silence. Despite Silver Jews’ cult following, their music was hard to find (Berman’s 1999 poetry collection Actual Air had been, proportionally, a better seller in the independent poetry market than any Silver Jews record before their addition to the streaming nexus two years ago). But in December 2018, long-time friend and founding Silver Jews member Bob Nastanovich let slip that Berman had finished a new record. By the Spring of 2019 his return was confirmed. ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’ was met with a flurry of media coverage, with feature interviews running in The Washington Post, Poetry and The Ringer. Purple Mountains was released in mid-July to universal acclaim, and a bicoastal tour of the United States was set to kick off in early August.
Berman was found dead on 7 August, three days before the first show, having taken his own life. Berman had suffered from what he termed ‘treatment-resistant depression’ for decades, along with intermittent substance abuse. After a failed suicide attempt in 2003, Berman married, sobered up, and began practicing Judaism. But apparently this new chapter could only last so long: during the Purple Mountains media tour, Berman detailed that he was broke, living in a studio above Drag City’s offices in Chicago, and in the midst of a gut-wrenching separation from his wife, Cassie, former bassist and vocalist for Silver Jews. In the wake of his death, the outlets championing his return were now celebrating his life, as remembrances and tribute pieces came pouring out. The dream of a renewed David Berman—creatively energised, hitting the road, looking to interact with his doggedly loyal fanbase—was over, this time permanently.
Purple Mountains has fallen to a similar fate. Immediate celebration gave way to hindsight declarations: in the weeks following Berman’s death, revisionary pieces ran dubbing the album an unheard cry for help, with headlines such as ‘It’s Too Late Now To Hear What David Berman Was Saying’, and ‘Is the Album of the Year a Suicide Note?’ With Actual Air’s repress back in full swing as of May, I think it might be time to reassess Purple Mountains, in a way that doesn’t reproduce the media’s reduction of his legacy, that doesn’t circumscribe its content and limit its artistry by framing it in the terms of mental illness.
While Berman had always been the poet laureate of sardonic darkness—his style characterised by an alchemical capacity for leveraging witticisms and poetic visions against pain, honesty, and isolation—Purple Mountains ups the ante. Pick any line of his from ’92 to ’09: ‘You’re a tower without a bell, you’re a negative wishing well’; ‘If Christ had died in a hallway we might pray in hallways / or wear little golden hallways around our necks’; and perhaps his most famous, ‘In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection’. In the saddest corners of his lyrics and poetry, there is always an appeal to comedy, even if the impulse is ultimately cannibalising. In the poem ‘Self-Portrait at 28’ from Actual Air, the first stanza reads, ‘I know it’s a bad title / but I’m giving it to myself as a gift / on a day nearly cancelled by sunlight / ... and I think “at least I have not woken up / with a bloody knife in my hand”’. Caveats abound here, on the one hand acting as qualifications that keep the speaker at a safe emotional distance from a natural beauty so overwhelming it threatens to cancel his day, and on the other hand implying a kind of neuroses akin to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. Unlike the cool expressionism of Berman’s long-time friend Stephen Malkmus, frontman of slack-rock god Pavement, Berman’s work never shies away from presenting the self as fragile. It uses humour as not just an existential tonic to fragility, but as a gift, one that affirms life as much as it tries to protect the self.
On Purple Mountains there is humour and there is pain, but they exist independently, the former no longer acting as an elixir for the latter. Where Berman’s earlier work induced laughter as a pressure valve, Purple Mountains makes us uncomfortably chuckle. Take for instance the chorus from ‘That’s Just The Way That I Feel’, the album’s opener: ‘Well, a setback can be a set up / For a comeback if you don’t let up / But this kind of hurtin’ won’t heal. / And the end of all wanting / Is all I’ve been wanting / That’s just the way that I feel’. Berman is aware of the comeback narrative, the redemptive potential of soldiering on. Where, before, Berman qualified the transcendence of a sunny day so as to preserve the self and the moment, here he caveats his own potential comeback within the first 80 seconds of the record. Knowing how it all ends, it is not surprising to see media outlets passing off Purple Mountains as a suicide note, something between a last hurrah and a swan song, Berman’s white knuckles loosening when he sings, ‘Way deep down in some sub-stratum / Feels like something really wrong has happened / And I confess I’m barely hanging on’. But painting this record in the grayscale of suicide is nothing more than a seductive reduction to media tropes. We have an addiction to narratives, stuck in a dehumanising spin cycle of hyped-up comebacks while peering through parted fingers anticipating the inevitable crash. After suicides, the first question often asked is ‘how?’, not ‘why?’, baring our preference for digestible conclusions rather than the complex entanglement of causes. We strip the record of its artistic autonomy and cap its relevance by reducing Purple Mountains to a suicide note. We say that Berman’s problems were his alone, and we deny the album life as anything more than a biographical document.
The problem that plagues Purple Mountains looks rather like another. ‘In the history of art the late works are the catastrophes,’ writes Theodor Adorno in the first proper treatise on ‘late style’. While Berman was only 52 when Purple Mountains was released, any listener can feel the album’s belatedness from the get-go, a marked departure from the rest of his oeuvre. Unlike Tanglewood Numbers (Berman’s comeback album after his 2003 suicide attempt), Purple Mountains seems ‘devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny’, showing ‘more traces of history than of growth,’ as Adorno characterises late works in general. Using Beethoven as his case study, Adorno tries to come to a theory of late works: works that are ‘furrowed, even ravaged,’ and appear inscrutable as they confound and discomfort us with their devaluation of artistic harmony. Criticism and public opinion often stutter when faced with such inscrutability, deferring to biography to explain away the disregard for conventional expressions of virtuosity.
Adorno, realising that almost all critical studies of the late Beethoven make reference to biography, characterises the dominant approach ‘as if, confronted with the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favour of reality’. Too many critics conclude that the artist, realising for whom the bell tolls, cedes control of his art to death. He looks back at his past like Peggy Lee, asks, ‘is that all there is?’, and subsequently gives up chasing aesthetic transcendence and settles for something ‘real’. Disappointed with this conclusion, however, Adorno makes the case that our attention has been directed incorrectly. We have spent our critical energies focusing on the artist’s psychology rather than the work of art itself. If we’re to find any way to talk about late works that can liberate them from biographical entrapment, we must start with the work’s formal qualities. The truth is, it’s much easier to resolve Berman’s ‘furrowed, even ravaged’ comeback attempt back into a narrative we know, suicide, than to continue to enjoy it on its own terms.
Adorno defines his theory of late style as a unique relationship between the ‘objective’ forms of a work and the ‘subjective’ expression of the artist. In late Beethoven, Adorno notes, there is such a stringent objectivism in his compositions that there appears to be little subjective expression. The pieces are arranged without harmony, and they don’t sum to a digestible feeling or set of feelings—they appear cold in how they move from form to form, reminding us that a composition is calculated, constructed, not organic. According to Adorno, critics explain this peculiarity by saying, ‘ah, his voice is absent from the piece—death must have stolen it!’ The death excuse conveniently unburdens the critic from having to understand why Beethoven would stray so far from the composition of his Greatest Hits. Adorno concludes that late works are ‘both objective and subjective’: ‘objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light [...] in which it glows into life. He does not bring about their harmonious synthesis’.
In Purple Mountains, we find the opposite: Berman is so suffocatingly expressive that all we can possibly hear is his voice. But, as with many concepts, the farther afield we travel, the more they come full circle. What made critics feel uncomfortable in late Beethoven was a sense of distance built into the work; what makes critics uncomfortable with Purple Mountains is that there is such little distance built into it that Berman’s expressions, saturated in self-pity, begin to trope themselves. ‘She’s making friends, and I’m turning stranger / The people on her end, couldn’t make it plainer / [...] I’m a loser, she’s a gainer / That’s one thing of which they’re dang sure’, Berman sings on ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’. Berman is pulling on his country affinities here, as country is the last lyrical frontier where down-home sincerity is not just celebrated, but an absolute requirement. The terms of Berman’s separation from his wife are figured in such simplistic dejection that I don’t think we could feel worse for Berman than he does for himself. However, negative self-perception, when expressed shamelessly through clichés, begins to appear impersonal, masked by the projections. Paradoxically, distance is introduced into the work as the subject is constantly framed in objective expressions, so basely sincere that they eschew conventional lyrical virtuosity. We might even call this an example of that tried and true trend of 20th century art, where content meets form: Berman’s exhaustion becomes troped in lyrics that are themselves exhausted in their use as conventions.
The record’s third track, ‘Darkness and Cold’, deftly elevates a cliché into subtle expression, only to unfold again into despondent isolation. ‘The light of my life is going out tonight / As the sun sinks in the west / The light of my life is going out tonight / With someone she just met’, sings Berman in the opening verse. The lines’ simplicity is deceiving, offering up a triple entendre to get the song off the ground—three conjoined readings, which get darker with each reveal. It can be read as a kind of domino effect: his lover is leaving, which means his marriage is over, and thus so is his reason to live. Berman continues, ‘She kept it burning longer than I had right to expect / The light of my life is going out tonight / Without a flicker of regret’. What starts off as a potential judgment of his lover flips to self-blame, refiguring the light of his life not as romantic object but instead as his will to live. But the ‘regret’ is ambiguous—is her departure without qualms because of his presumed difficulties, or his submission without regret because he had been living on borrowed time anyhow? There’s no definite answer, just more ambiguity as the cliché passes back and forth between self-negation and poetic elevation.
Both these examples represent the paradox of Purple Mountains. The more Berman conveys self-pity in conventions and clichés, the more his emotional and psychological exhaustion is mirrored, even underscored, in linguistic fatigue. That non-expressive distance that made Beethoven critics cringe appears in Purple Mountains as the distance between Berman’s sincerity and sadness and the terms of his self-expression. Such extreme subjectivity shades into objectivity when saturated with tropes that seem to express themselves more than the speaker. Berman’s lyrics on Purple Mountains effectively reject the kind of poetic mastery that defined his career, instead finding their dexterity in phrasings and framings that deny us exultance without sacrificing an ounce of artistry. ‘Songs build little rooms in time / and housed within a song’s design / is the ghost the host has left behind / to greet and sweep the guest inside’, Berman sings on ‘Snow is Falling in Manhattan’, in one of the few untortured moments of Purple Mountains. As Adorno notes, late works do ‘not always bespeak deathly resolve and demonic humour’, but can also ‘have a serene, almost idyllic tone’. In that half-verse, Berman gives us the template to listen to Purple Mountains, reminding us songs are objects, ‘rooms in times’, designed and continuously lived in by artists, even after they are recorded and experienced by any number of listeners. Berman’s artistic intention never suffered, even as he did.
GIANNI DE FALCO reads for an MSt in English at Corpus Christi College. When he goes into town he always wears a corduroy suit, because it's made of a hundred gutters that the rain can run right through.
Art by Anna Covell