For the Records | A Salute to Sad Bastards and Suicides on “Purple Mountains”

For the Records is a series of articles by special guest writer Mike McCubbins on his favorite albums of the 2010s. Click here to read the entire series.

I’m trying to get at something so simple
That I have to talk plainly
So the words don’t disfigure it
And if it turns out that what I say is untrue
Then at least let it be harmless
Like a leaky boat in the reeds
That is bothering no one

 –David Berman from his poem Self Portrait at 28


When I ask people why they don’t like my favorite lyricist John Darneille of the Mountain Goats, it’s almost never the lyrics but the voice they site as the turn-off. I suppose that’s the way I could characterize my disinterest in David Berman and the Silver Jews for so long. There were a couple times when by someone’s recommendation, I decided to listen, but I never got in far enough to be grabbed by Berman’s wry lyricism. Without some other form of immersion, my early impressions stuck. The Silver Jews just weren’t for me.

When David Berman released his new project Purple Mountains after a long hiatus, I heard the single “All My Happiness is Gone.” It reminded me of The Mountain Goats’ “No Children,” the upbeat major-key downer-track that is often the gateway drug into the rest of Darnielle’s work. But, the tone on “Happiness” was different. This didn’t feel like a character, it felt like a declarative personal statement.

It’s not the purple hills/
It’s not the silver lakes/
It’s not the snowcloud shadowed interstates/
It’s not the icy bike-chain-rain of Portland, Oregon
Where nothing’s wrong and no one’s askin’/
But the fear’s so strong it leaves you gaspin’/
No way to live out here like this for long

Darnielle is still making great albums. But the work that got under my skin because it was so darkly vibrant seems behind him, and this is fine. I like to see the arc of a troubled songwriter’s career take that turn toward a soft landing, it’s just not the music I want to hear when my own world feels like a wreck.

I needed some sad bastard to sing some songs for me this year—someone who could go all-in. Father John Misty’s break-up-to-make-up album God’s Favorite Customer is one of my favorites of the decade but stops short. His songs of existential waywardness and reckless narcissism nonetheless lead him back to timely realizations and reconciliation. Good on you, FJM, but I can’t use that ending.

David Bazan came though this year too with the first Pedro The Lion album in over a decade, though he’s been steady releasing work under his own name in the interim. Bazan is one of my sad bastard go-tos. His string quartet version of “Wolves at the Door,” originally off his timely yet prescient 2011 album Strange Negotiations, played on repeat in the weeks following the 2016 general election. I needed its mix of anger, pity, and beleaguered empathy to get me through a few of those days.  In 2009 I used Bazan’s apparent Christianity to talk about coming across that divide for good art. But Bazan was already moving through the crisis of faith that has driven and defined his fascinating solo career. PTL’s new album Phoenix earns its place among their best, but Bazan is going for a therapeutic dive into his childhood memories this time, and the result is earnest and uplifting.

Then Purple Mountains comes along and it has all the dark ingredients I need: the self-pity of “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” the bitter jealousy of “Darkness and Cold,” the simmering misanthropy of “Margarita’s at the Mall,” the paranoid alienation of “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” and perhaps most importantly the pitch black comic ending of “Maybe I’m the Only One For Me.” This is the one. For better or worse, this is the album that makes me feel less alone.

Berman released Purple Mountains in July of this year, and in August he took his own life. There was an outpouring of appreciation for Berman’s work online, some of which has led me to his excellent poetry collection Actual Air. Along with the memorializing, however, come the prayerful sentiments and the help-line posts. I don’t begrudge them, but I end up asking myself if they do less to help people who suffer, and more to telegraph the idea that suicide is such a taboo act that it should never be contemplated. It’s one of the reasons Purple Mountains feels like a singularly transgressive statement, if for no other reason than that it’s so candid about its dark preoccupations when “no one’s askin’.” Many of its passages are blood-in-the-teeth sardonic wit, but some speak plainly and directly about Berman’s pain and his will to end it. On “Nights That Won’t Happen” he states, as if laboring the point, “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.” I wouldn’t argue if you saw Purple Mountains as a cry for help, but to me it sounds more like a plea for understanding. One can sense that Berman understands the contours of such a decision, which is why his death adds power to his already powerful musical/lyrical statement.

This year I lost a friend to suicide. He too was an artist with a wry sense of humor and a particularly treatment-resistant depression. It came as a shock, but not a surprise. And, when I think on it, I try to think on the relief it must have meant. But I also wonder about the darker works I know he made before he took his life, but that he never had a chance to share. I wonder if they too would bring me—a guy who gets down but not that far down—some solace, understanding, or perspective. I’m certain that, like me, he used his art to cope with his life.

Few artists have had the chance or foresight, as Berman has, to make such an affecting curtain call and final bow. For me, the raw force of his statement and the dignity of his exit finally cut through the fog of his appropriately mumbling presentation, and it opens me up to the quiet profundity of his earlier works. | Mike McCubbins

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