In 2009, David Berman, just a few years into his first shows with The Silver Jews, announced his retirement from music. It wasn’t too surprising. After all, it can’t be easy singing indie’s most introspective and anxious lyrics to a crowd of strangers night after night. However, it’s easy to forget that Berman didn’t inform indie rock like his buddy Stephen Malkmus did. Rather, The Jews are more aptly described as coming from a tradition instead of creating one. If it wasn’t clear that he was raised on country at the time, it certainly is now with Purple Mountains.

In 2018 Berman produced the glorious second album from Yonatan Gat, the criminally overlooked Universalists. Gat’s playing doesn’t mirror Berman’s style in any discernible way, but they made the collaboration work with bizarre combinations of recording and editing. A far cry from Berman’s traditional work, the record ebbs and flows with a fluid pace, never once letting you sink into a familiar songform.

In 2019, Purple Mountains was announced and released. Instead of feeling like he had to double down on Gat’s avant garde recordings, Berman made the most conventional record of his career. Following in a strictly country tradition, these songs continue to breathe fresh air into a genre that’s been revitalized around every corner in the last few years. Hell, a guy from Saskatchewan made the most authentic sounding country album of 2018.

But remember, Berman and the Jews made country cool in a time that was dominated by Garth Brooks, and Purple Mountains is a fabulous reminder of just how deeply we felt his every word in the 90s and 00s. The first three tracks are so strong, you wonder how long he’s been cooking them up. 'All My Happiness Is Gone' is the catchiest sad song this side of Eels, and 'Darkness and Cold' has a haunting quality that’s only matched by a Nick Cave or Elliott Smith.

'Margaritas at The Mall' and 'Storyline Fever' showcase the cleverness we’ve been missing from Berman these last ten years. But if we were to discuss Purple Mountains strictly in its lyrical prowess, we’d be able to write a novel. It’s not that any lyric is particularly potent or individual, it’s just that he clearly writes his poetry from a deep understanding of what makes rock music work. “When you’re seller and commodity/ You gotta sell yourself immodestly” he rambles on 'Storyline Fever', perhaps offering on a silver platter the exact reasons why he’s returned to the recording studio.

Whether he feels every emotion he’s describing or is putting on a mask, the songs remain enjoyable and lighthearted. 'Snow Is Falling In Manhattan' however is particularly honest. The observance of nature is a natural response to life’s difficulties, and Berman takes his time chewing the scenery. When a soft horn section enters in the choruses, you could dream away an afternoon as if Berman’s contemporaries Lambchop were arranging the tunes. It’s incredibly well done.

Although the songwriting is quality enough to make a lot of modern singers jealous, Purple Mountains is lacking in adventurism. You have to ask if you would like it more if 2019 David Berman took more risks? But, it’s more satisfying to have a comeback record that stands its ground instead of one that reaches beyond its limits.

The other nagging questions is that, despite the upbeat production, is David Berman still this upset with the world around him? Though he meditates so strongly on anxiety, heartache, and worthlessness, it’s hard to believe that things have been going so poorly for him. He’s made quite the career for himself outside of music, so it’s more comforting (although potentially false) to assume that he sings about sadness because that’s what he’s good at. You’d hope his past is haunting him more than anything else these days.

In 2003, Berman attempted to kill himself with a combination of Xanax and crack cocaine, demanding to get the New York hotel room where Al Gore had stayed before losing the 2000 presidential election - “I want to die where the presidency died!” he demanded at the time. You’d think a guy with such strong convictions about the state of society would lean all over the topic on a record in 2019, but Berman sticks to what he knows best. It’s another feather in the cap of Purple Mountains - that he knows his strengths and keeps to ‘em. Even though it’s been ten years since Silver Jews ended, Berman still sings with the flare and gusto of a classic, a term that’s much easier to pin on him after hearing this album.