Silver Jews and purple mountains

By: Winston Watusi watusi@thesun.co.nz

Winston Watusi
Music Plus

Songs can be deceptive; songs can mess up your mind.

Because pretty much everything, however dark and dangerous, however sad and tragic, can sound good in a song. Even when it's not meant to.

The problem is in human inability to remember pain. It's just one of those things. You can remember the experience of pain, the thing you can't remember is the actual pain. This underpins the idea of catharsis in art.

When you listen to a heartbreakingly sad song it doesn't necessarily make you heartbreakingly sad. Since you can no longer feel the actual pain the song might take you too – reminding you of hurt from your past perhaps - you can relive the painful experience and feel a cathartic pleasure from it.

And there's a second reason. A great song is a thing of beauty, a work of art, and similarly to how ravishing cinematography in a film can risk beautifying horrific scenes, so an exquisite melody in a sad song nudges emotions from real sadness towards cathartic artistic sadness, a safer second-hand feeling, pleasurable in the way melancholy can be. Danny Boy, anyone?

This, I would argue, is what actually makes many of the most honest drug songs dangerous.

Rehab

I've been listening recently to a couple of fantastic songs about rehab. They don't sugar-coat it. These are hard hitting songs, songs about damaged people not getting better.

But they've got great tunes. And, being reflections of a complicated world, they also contain humour.

They're a real pleasure to listen to. Which is a problem, because what they're trying to depict is not pleasant. And, despite themselves, they end up romanticising it, because a well-written lyric and a great melody bring enjoyment whatever the subject matter.

It's the humour in such songs that is most deceiving. Humour in an otherwise bleak song is not unusual. It's very true to life. Some of the most ostensibly depressive people I've known have also been the funniest. That could certainly be said about the album I was planning to review this week.

Purple Mountains is the first album from the band of that name, a new group put together by cult American singer/songwriter David Berman, his first release since retiring his previous band Silver Jews ten years ago.

Silver Jews was an indie outfit, essentially Berman with an ever-changing group of friends, including from time to time Stephen Malkmus and/or Bob Nastanovich from the band Pavement. The group released six albums between 1994 and 2008, each marked by Berman's gruff baritone voice and intense and unique songs

Profound Songs

And what songs! To quote David Malitz: “He didn’t have just one mode; his songs were generous with moments of wisdom, humour, sadness, anger, silliness, tenderness, mystery. If a human being was capable of feeling it, David could write it and render it profound.”

He was famous for first lines. Their 1998 album American Water opened with: “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”.

David Berman was a troubled man. The pain he wrote about was real even when couched in humour. The song from Purple Mountains most heard on radio here is All My Happiness Is Gone, which contains bon mots such as “Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go / Some of them were once people I was happy to know.” It's clever, it's funny, it's bleak.

He wrote such sharp songs that it was possible to ignore the depression and to simply take pleasure in the deft self-deprecating humour. Try this couplet from the album's opener: “Course I've been humbled by the void / Much of my faith has been destroyed / I've been forced to watch my foes enjoy / Ceaseless feasts of schadenfreude”

What a line, eh! “Ceaseless feasts of schadenfreude”.

The album came out a month ago, but it's not the clever humour that now stands out. It's very hard to listen to right now. Despite being one of 2019’s most unlikely and genuinely inspiring comeback stories, David Berman committed suicide in New York last week.