After the Silver Jews ended in 2009, David Berman's retreat from music seemed so final that the mere existence of Purple Mountains is somewhat miraculous -- and even more so because it's one of his finest collections of songs. For this go-round, Berman chose a brilliant band name: Purple Mountains is traditional but not obvious, familiar but with more than a hint of eternal mystery. While he's always been an eloquent songwriter, now he's also a direct one -- it's as if these songs are making up for lost time as they let listeners know what's been on his mind during the years he was gone. Within the first few seconds of "That's Just the Way I Feel," the hapless honky tonk that begins Purple Mountains, Berman transports his audience back into his world instantly. Just as quickly, it becomes clear that this incarnation of his music isn't as ramshackle as the Silver Jews were, even at their most gussied-up. He's backed by Woods, who ably handle any challenge Berman throws at them, whether it's the ironically mighty brass that soundtracks his lack of faith on the standout "Margaritas at the Mall" or the velvety vibraphone and pedal steel on "Snow Is Falling on Manhattan."
These timeless sounds mirror the classic tenor of Purple Mountains' songwriting. Over the years, Berman tried to record an album numerous times (with collaborators ranging from Destroyer's Dan Bejar to his old friend Stephen Malkmus), but reportedly couldn't finish his songs' lyrics. Based on how his simple, carefully chosen words let his wit and poetry ring out on Purple Mountains, it's safe to say that they were worth the wait. As he touches on his losses, Berman blends humor and heartbreak more masterfully -- and quotably -- than ever. "Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go/Some of them were once people I was happy to know," he sings on "All My Happiness Is Gone," a song with a shuffling beat that echoes Silver Jews' "Trains Across the Sea" and synth strings that feel decidedly Purple Mountains. He's even more eloquent on "Darkness and Cold," where he distills the growing distance between him and his estranged wife, Cassie, with lyrics like "the light of my life is going out without a flicker of regret." That song's flip side, "She's Making Friends, I'm Turning Stranger," boasts a country song title so archetypal that it almost didn't need to be fleshed out into an unflinching mix of self-awareness and jealousy with a bitterly strutting bass line and quietly seething pedal steel -- but fortunately, it was. By the same token, Berman knows when to let a simple "she was, she was, she was" speak volumes on "I Loved Being My Mother's Son." Filled with lonely songs that are as warm as a hug from a long-lost friend, Purple Mountains is a potent, poignant reminder of Berman's gifts -- and how much they, and he, will be missed.