December 10, 2019
I was asked over the summer to review the new David Berman album, the debut self-titled release of his new project, Purple Mountains. It was his first release, besides a one off with The Avalanches (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XTrz0yvxe0), in around a decade. The album is very good, and often brilliant, like the rest of Berman’s records. And his book of poems, Actual Air. And The Portable February, his collection of cartoons and doodles. And his essays, which are not plentiful, scattered and uncollected. I planned to write about the album and its relation to Berman’s genius, and his mastery of language and form. How it is the work of an old, tired master—an album without flash. One that is smooth, perceptive, prescient, and weighted with pain. I was to finish the piece after seeing Purple Mountains play a concert at Brooklyn’s Murmrr theater. That would have been in late August.
This plan made sense to me for a few reasons. First, the symbolic. Murmrr was once a synagogue. And as a writer of a vague and intrinsic Jewishness, I feel a sort of kinship with Berman. We are wanderers in the same diasporic and Freudianly horny tradition. And, at least to me, a devoted fan, Berman, across his output, proffered something spiritual. What one might call a rabbinic element. A gesture at a fuller life beyond bodies and their doldrums. A life of language. A life of more and less living.
I’d also never seen Berman in person, playing music or otherwise, and as far as I knew, not many people had in a long time. I had an idea that witnessing him might unlock some secret understanding of his art. Besides, I’d turned twenty-five the past spring, meaning, in all likelihood I’d lived at minimum a quarter of my life, and, in that time, no other artist had formed my aesthetic sensibility, the purpose of my project, if I can call the body of my work “a project,” as Berman had. I figured it would be a greeting and a farewell. That, as the Smog lyric goes, “that was the first part of my life/ second is the rest.”
What I mean is that my relation to art has been changing. I think it has something to do with making more art myself. Regardless, less and less does something move me in a complete and uncritical manner, and most of the things that do elicit that response are relics of my youth. Albums and books and poems that I return to repeatedly, chasing the spark of their newness. But I don’t get tired of David Berman’s poems and the music of the Silver Jews. His language, as I change against it, seems to make itself new. Re-revealing why I loved it in the first place. During his years of absence, I’d check Berman’s rarely updated blog, Menthol Mountains, and consider if it’d be worth it to email him. I never did. I didn’t know what I’d even say. “Hey man, I’ve been making a concerted effort to rip you off less in my writing.”
Anyway, I had a boyish hope that I might speak with him that night at Murmrr after the show. I know the guy who owns the venue. I hoped he could make it happen. I had a question for David. I wanted to ask him if he’d read the poet Michael Burkard. I’d been reading Burkard’s book, A Ruby for Grief, on the recommendation of my girlfriend Eve, and some of the poems in there seemed like they’d maybe influenced Berman’s work in Actual Air. And anyway, the idea wasn’t that outlandish. Berman studied under James Tate at UMass Amherst, and I knew Burkard and Tate knew and read each other. And, regardless, I was now a writer moving in vaguely adjacent literary circles to the ones Berman moved among a half-life ago. Burkard had even been Eve’s first poetry professor. They still text often. I thought maybe Berman might give me his email. We could write vague notes to each other now and then. I could thank him for the things he made.
But, as I assume you know, that never happened. On August 7th 2019, days before his tour was set to begin, David Berman killed himself. (full disclosure: I originally envisioned this piece as a companion study of Purple Mountains and Bill Callahan’s record, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. I’ve jettisoned Callahan, but not for a lack of admiration).
The day David Berman killed himself, I read Michael Burkard’s poem, “Sideways Suicide,” multiple times. It ends:
one evening I will submissively return to this departure,
and I will walk in back of myself, like a shadow will walk,
like a shadow now walks in back of myself. I will disconnect
any old grief you feel, I will take it, I will take it off the wall
like you can take a telephone off the wall, then I will speak
on that phone: authors are assholes, the rain that is lost is
memory that is lost, like you are, and I’ll walk,
I will walk in a very local direction, and I will revenge the change
that memory brings, as it must bring change, as it changes.
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Months have passed. I have struggled to write this review. I’ve considered going through the album song by song, ignoring the album entirely and writing an essay about the Silver Jews, ignoring the music and writing an essay about Actual Air, ignoring all of Berman’s art and, instead, writing about his biography—his father, his divorce, his connections from UVA, that he attempted suicide once before, in 2001—and I thought, too, about doing a process piece on Purple Mountains, how it was almost made with Dan Bejar, that the band Woods plays on this record, how maybe that all means something. Anyway, what we’ve ended up with is a little of all of those. And more of me around than I initially expected. But that’s the way it goes sometimes.
◊ ◊ ◊
I have been thinking a lot about memory. Maybe it’s because I’ve wadded into the stage of maturity in which it’s not uncommon to round a corner and, like a blow from a waiting assassin, be struck by a profound sadness from somewhere in my past. I find more and more often I’m pulled back into the whirl of memory’s elliptic shame. I imagine this will only get worse.
It has changed my relation to the spaces and places I know. It feels as if the scenes of my day to day life have been horribly over dubbed and my events are layered upon themselves, happening all at once, grainy and ghostly.
Just the other day I was with my mother at the supermarket. We were shopping for Thanksgiving dinner and I was texting Eve. But the service in the grocery store was spotty at best. My phone kept informing me my messages couldn’t be delivered. This left me feeling very disconnected and alone. And, as we progressed down the canned goods aisle, it struck me I’d had that seem feeling, that same stress and detachment, in this very supermarket, shopping for different Thanksgiving dinners, texting different girlfriends. I wondered if I would ever escape from this cyclic horror. What supermarket would I be in when Eve stopped loving me. How bad would it burn?
I had to step outside and walk amongst the parked cars to reorder myself.
The way I listen to David Berman, too, has changed. I see the way he thinks of memory and time much more clearly.
I’ve been returning, in particular, to “The Wild Kindness.” It’s the final track on American Water. An album many consider his best, and the last Jews album to feature Stephen Malkmus. I’d argue The Natural Bridge is better. But that’s besides the point.
On “The Wild Kindness,” Berman sings, “Grass grows in the icebox/The year ends in the next room/It is autumn and my camouflage is dying/Instead of time there will be lateness…/and let forever be delayed.”
As a teenager I was struck by the language itself. How those phrases just sound good. How there’s something ineffably cool about the way he put words together. They are playful, inexplicable, and strike a trueness that feels particularly inflected by a fondness for the stupidity of American consumerism. Berman’s works are riddled with useless commercial items that, in their relations, are made profound. Even hallucinatory. But, perhaps because of hindsight, or just the way the chemicals in my brain have changed, I find a thread through all the cleverness: a desire to make the little flecks of beauty permanent against the horrific looming void of death and guilt and shame.
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Purple Mountains opens with “That’s Just the Way That I Feel.” The first word of the song, “well,” Berman delivers with a nearly identical drawl to the “no” that opens the first track on the The Natural Bridge, “How to Rent a Room.” The line on that song goes, “No I don’t really want to die/I only want to die in your eyes.” It’s a song concerned with want and paradox, as Berman stacks contradicting couplets like, “I want to wander through the night/as a figure in the distance even to my own eye.”
“That’s Just the Way that I Feel” opens: “Well I don’t like talking to myself/but someone’s got to say it hell.” Here Berman is beyond want. He just relays his condition. The barren decade he bled away. He croons, in a bridge that’s objectively catchy, “of course I’ve been humbled by the void/much of my faith has been destroyed.” But, it’s on the song’s breakdown that he presents the central thesis, the lush production peels back, and over a snare tap he sings: “the end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting/that’s just the way that I feel.”
It’s an idea already mentioned by quite a few people (Jeffrey Lewis, most compellingly, I’d say: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bEgdSeTAfM&feature=emb_title) that Purple Mountains feels like a final document. A goodbye.
On “Snow is Falling in Manhattan,” a lilting ballad at the album’s center, Berman sings about a caretaker managing a townhouse in a snowstorm. It begins in the literal as Berman narrates:
Snow is falling in Manhattan
In a slow diagonal fashion
On the Sabbath, as it happens
Snow is falling in Manhattan
If it looks like it might be a bad one
The good caretaker springs to action
Salts the stoop and scoops the cat in
Tests an icy patch for traction
But, as the song develops, the lyrics take a rhetorical turn. He sings, “Songs build little rooms in time/ And housed within the song’s design/ Is the ghost the host has left behind/ To greet and sweep the guest inside.” The snow then reminds me of a line from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, what his narrator Adam Gordon calls, “life’s white machine,” and, to kill the metaphor, the house is the song, the art, and Berman, the artist, its caretaker. To take a leap: making art is an act of care, a thing one does for other people. A thing that might help those people. A thing that will not, however, not save the artist.
The song ends: “Snow is falling in Manhattan/ Inside I’ve got a fire crackling/ And on the couch, beneath an afghan/ You’re the old friend I just took in.”
I struggle to listen to “Snow is Falling in Manhattan,” what had, before, been my favorite song on the album. Maybe that’s because David Berman died in New York city. In Park Slope, Brooklyn, a place whose brownstones I imagine, perhaps falsely, as the song’s setting.
Or maybe it is Berman’s voice that troubles me. The way it bobs around melodies, crackly, not what most would call “good,” but singular and compelling and always in service of the song.
As I draft this review, in the state of New York, snow is falling, thick and wet. It’s buried the boxy silver Scion in the barber shop parking lot up to the axles. I am in my underwear and Eve, in the next room, is working on her poems. I have had to pause, multiple times, while writing, because sometimes I will think of a line from some Berman song and nearly cry. Just now, the last one, “Repair is the dream of a broken thing.”
Someday I wonder, maybe when I am 52, and the coast of Florida is just a collective memory, how I will have categorized these moments in my mind. I wonder, when I play these songs, will they revenge the change that memory brings, as it must bring change, as I change.
◊ ◊ ◊
A final scene:
I spoke with the poet Chis Kennedy in the basement of a University chapel about David Berman. This was sometime in late October or early November. We were at a memorial for a different poet. A different suicide.
Outside, the deceptive autumn sun lit the campus in radiant blue camouflage. I wore a shearling jacket even though the room was hot. In Manhattan, where in a few weeks snow would fall, many of my friends were attending the launch party of a literary journal in which I was included.
“I met Berman once,” Chris said. Chris, like me, is tall and slightly hunched. Unlike me, he is entirely bald. He spoke slowly. With the low, atonal voice employed by many lapsed Catholics.
“It was at AWP,” Chris said, “in what must have been around 2000.” He said a mutual friend made the introduction. That Berman was shy, but very nice. That they both stood around awkwardly, trying to make small talk.
We were beside a table stacked with memorial chapbooks. The table’s legs looked like four brown shotguns.
“We talked about Michael Burkard,” Chris said, “turns out he was a big fan of his.”
Guests filed into the hallway. There were steam trays filled with once frozen meatballs and dumplings. A platter of vegetables of various baby varieties. A tub like container of ranch dressing.
Chris and I talked about music and writers and death and the upcoming launch party for The Complete Gary Lutz. When my friend Jakob came over, we talked about The National.
I ate seven of the once frozen dumplings. I dipped three of them in a sweet tasting sauce the color and texture of gasoline.
Later, Eve and I walked to my car. Sometime in the next 12-24 hours there would be a football game and the campus appeared to be hulking itself into a soulless preparation. Outside a fraternity house, fraternity members sat upon a massive, stilt raised bench drinking cheap domestic beer. How many times, I wondered, had I drank a beer during the exact moment a person I’d once shared a glance with was attending the memorial for a suicide. I wondered why nearly all the people who’ve made art that means anything to me possess brains contorted by the cruel function of misery. I thought about how far too many of my friends have wanted to die. How far too many of my friends have tried to die.
Eve and I entered my car. It is a hatchback, made in a country very far away. We looked at each other over the center consol. It was a similar look to the look we shared this morning, over coffee. The type of look that for a moment makes the world go blank and reaffirms the goodness of love. What I’m getting at is this: despite our cursed planet getting warmer by the day, despite the evilness of our rulers and the cruelness common to humanity, you can briefly feel distance from the pain and inconsequentiality of life. That if you listen to the music of David Berman. Or read his poems. Or, if I’ve done my job, read this review with enough generosity and care, we can let forever be delayed.