Purple Mountains‘ self-titled debut seemed to have sold out quickly after David Berman’s suicide in August, just three days before he was to begin a tour in support of the record. You couldn’t find it anywhere, outside of some vastly overpriced copies on Discogs. During a recent crate digging expedition in Vancouver, BC, I was shocked to stumble upon a copy. Of course I snapped it right up!
Word on the street, according to the guy behind the counter at Audiopile Records, is that Drag City found some extra copies and distributed what was left. He also mentioned that there may be a repress in the works, possibly due out later this year.
Did Purple Mountains’ debut LP foreshadow David Berman’s suicide? The question is irrelevant, in the past. It’s like asking whether violent music causes violence; the correlation does not mean causation.
Still, listening to Purple Mountains is a heartbreaking venture. Reading the lyrics on the printed inner lyric sleeve drives home this fact:
The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.
That’s the opening line in “Nights That Won’t Happen” where Berman dishes out vocal poetry reminiscent of Kyle Field’s Little Wings.
Berman was known for lyrical prowess. He was the master at painting vivid pictures–happy, quirky, sad, heartbreaking–with this poetry and adding to it equally alluring instrumentation.
Beginning And Ending in Death
Purple Mountains, as has been rehashed over and over, was the first new material from Berman since disbanding Silver Jews over a decade ago. And as it ends in death, so there it began as well.
According to Berman himself, his mother’s death led him to pick up a guitar. You can hear the impact she had on his life in “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”:
Creation of music, for him and for many, is a sort of meditation.
All My Happiness is Gone
Purple Mountains is not a happy album. Very little in the way of positivity can be found within. From the loneliness in “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” to the hopelessness in “All My Happiness is Gone”.
In the latter, Berman opens with a notable line about growing older:
Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old
Keepin’ then is harder than you might suppose
It’s a relatable line for anyone outside the traditional trajectory of the relationship escalator. Suddenly divorced, always kidless, living a somewhat alternative lifestyle–these things can be quite isolating as you get older. Berman knew this all too well.
In the video for the song by Brent Stewart and Matt Boyd, we get a two-minute opener before the song begins.
Many of the earlier shots of Berman show him alone in a room. The video conveys an interesting sense of isolation. When we do see him performing, we just see the audience hazy and out of focus. Even the band goes in and out of focus.
It seems the only consistently clear individual is Berman, signifying the people slipping in and out of his life.
There’s a moment toward the end where he’s mingling with the crowd. We then see them a little clearer, and we see him smile. It’s the first smile we see Berman don during the video. And as he returns to the stage and bows out, the footage fades to black, but the outro continues for another ten seconds.
Purple Mountains is an album packed with heartache and loneliness, an artist tormented with depression. It’s almost eerie in the aftermath of Berman’s suicide. Throughout, though, there is beauty in the sadness.
And there are lessons on mental health that are too often ignored.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential support for people in crisis and distress. It’s not just for those experiencing potential thoughts on suicide, but their loved ones as well. Their number is 1-800-273-8255.