Charting the wilderness of Mount Eerie

October 29, 2017

Alex Epstein

“But I’m small

I’m not a planet at all

I’m small

We’re all,” sings Phil Elverum in the first Microphones song I ever heard, and so began a five year journey of discovery, exploration, rediscovery, reexploration; and on, and on, and so on.

Mount Eerie, and formerly The Microphones, is the title of Phil Elverum’s solo musical project stretching back more than 20 years. From 1996’s X-Ray Means Woman cassette, to 2001’s universally acclaimed indie staple The Glow Pt. 2, to 2017’s unflinching A Crow Looked At Me, Elverum has always felt, to me, completely honest with the music he makes. That’s what drew me to him in the first place, and what keeps me going back, and digging through his 30-odd albums for another glimpse of truth, experience, love, or longing. If this sounds sappy, maybe it is. We’re all human.

 

“The thunder clouds broke up

The rain dried up

The lightning let up

The clacking shutters just shut up.” On my first listening to The Glow Pt. 2, I felt like I had started in the middle of a sentence. Every word felt disjointed, like an e.e. cummings poem, all non-sequitur, not quite sounding right or lyrical. And yet, I was enchanted by its musical texture – off-kilter guitar strums, accompaniments that wove in and out, and drumbeats distorted so much they seemed like subdued explosives.

I realised, a little later on, that the guitar plucks on ‘The Moon’ that sounded so off-beat and even out-of-tune on its first listen were hiding something – the meticulous, artisanal craft of each song’s structure and production. To this day, I think the album is Elverum’s triumph. The richness of The Glow Pt. 2 is genius, hidden beneath its layers of humble, laconic softness. It’s a fantastic pleasure to listen to, and I struggle not to wear it out.

The Glow (part one) I found buried in a record made a year earlier. I followed this song like a path leading back through the woods; from The Glow Pt. 2’s Pacific Northwestern forests to It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water’s sunny gravel beaches.

It Was Hot is filled with lyrical imagery of time, geography, and weather, keeping its list of characters short. It is fascinated with the state of purely being in a place – existing mindfully, noticing sensations, emotions, the environment. Somehow, its melodies felt so familiar to me when I first listened to it. Feedback swells like stormclouds, harmonies ebb and flow like currents, drums cascade like a downpour, all coated in distortion so gritty you could reach out and feel it.

There are traces of each album in each other – the crunchy, effect-laden drums, fingerpicked guitar, bag-of-word lyrics – and yet the earlier album seems more playful, naive, even childlike; with a carefree and experimental spirit in common with albums like Sung Tongs or The Milk-Eyed Mender. Like both of these albums, It Was Hot is an in-depth exploration of the more alien elements of the masterpiece which would soon follow. Tracks like ‘Drums’ or ‘Sand (Eric’s Trip)’ are vibrant and expressive; while ‘(Something) ver.2’ or ‘The Glow’ hint at something much more expansive, something Elverum’s music would go on to explore in detail.

 

“We found a precious place in the sand

right out in the wind

and we lied under a blanket and heard the furious sound,

the roar of waves, the pounding surf, two bodies on the earth,

it was intense just getting to be there next to you,” reminisces Elverum in one of ‘The Moon’’s many versions. Often contemplative of memory, regret, and longing, a great many of Phil’s songs bear references or connections to previous ones. The Glow Pt. 2’s sister LP, Disc Two: Other Songs & Destroyed Versions, contains rough mixes of slightly different versions of the former’s tracklist. Song Islands has two alternate reprises of ‘The Moon’; Window is a fascinating compilation of vignette versions of previous songs; and in the dozen or so Mount Eerie albums before Clear Moon, reprises seem more common than originals. This is a good thing. Singers is a collection of 9 such reprises, performed with a live choir, who bookend each track with playful, candid banter that brings a smile to my face every time I hear it.

 

“Human,

human,

human,

human,” chant the choir on Singers’ ‘Human’. Besides the organic web of connections and references between songs, what strikes me the most about Elverum’s lyrics is how they manage to be so unconventional and yet so universal. It feels like they are chosen by their sonic qualities first, and their semantics second – short words in sibiliant series or assonant association, for example – and like automatic writing, they fall together, almost accidentally. It makes for some remarkable effects, like the resonating understatement of ‘I Can’t Believe You Actually Died’, or the cryptic ‘I Have Been Told That My Skin Is Exceptionally Smooth’. By restricting himself to these short, common, everyday words, I think Phil wants us to find shared experience in the mundane, even when that happens to be uncomfortable or tragic. 

 

It’s not meant to be a strife,

It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill,” sing Julie Doiron and Fred Squire on 2008’s Lost Wisdom collaboration (the lyrics originally Björk’s, in fact). When Elverum gets melancholy, it’s rarely melodramatic. Death is a common subject in his music, but the horror is dealt with indirectly; like Hemingway’s Nick Adams, he localises the emotion within other sensations, not describing death itself, but rather tracing its edges. “At your grandma’s church/ At the funeral/ I held a baby,” or, “Another of my friends has died/ Uh oh, it’s morning time again.” In another context, the juxtaposition between the uncomfortably tragic and the boring might even be funny.

Too often, discussion of death is clouded in melodrama, and its real affect obscured by directness. Elverum, instead, evokes death as it feels to a witness: bizarre, out-of-place, and yet somehow frighteningly real.

 

“When real death enters the house,

All poetry is dumb,” mourns Elverum on ‘Soria Moria’, from 2017’s A Crow Looked At Me. After the death of his wife Geneviève, I was hugely emotional – moreso than I thought I could be for two people I had never met; I came to tears over somebody else’s mourning, several times as I listened to the album Phil released soon after. It was as if he was carefully guiding my hands over his raw wounds.

I can’t imagine what it felt like to transcribe such awful, horrible longing into music.

But Crow is a powerful album; and though explicitly personal, it more than retains the affective strength of Mount Eerie’s previous efforts, their deliberate, mundane poetry, their concrete grasps at metaphysical emotion, their motifs of memory and environment. Stripped back to guitars, piano, and minimal percussion, it’s unflinchingly raw, horrifically honest, with unprecedented bluntness: “Death is real,” ends ‘My Chasm’, with a tear in Elverum’s voice.

 

“But I’m small

I’m not a planet at all

I’m small

We’re all,” sings Elverum in ‘The Moon’.

I sincerely hope the lasting legacy of Mount Eerie and The Microphones will be neither solely melancholy nor tragedy. The sensation I feel when I listen to any of Elverum’s music is like a rich affirmation, or an honest and empathetic embrace, from one human to another. His candour is positively inspiring, a testament to life and love, memory and space, time and loss, stringing them all together, just as they are inextricably connected in life.

We’re all people, Phil says, and here’s what it’s like: we feel, we do, we really, really do.