Of self-mythology and
cold winter nights: Phil Elverum’s season of shadows and light.
BY CHRISTIAN KIEFER
Much has been made as of late about the ability of musicians
to get their sounds directly to the fans by way of digital downloads and home
recording. It seems there is little use
for self-restraint anymore as music can be produced so inexpensively and
distributed for very little outlay of cash that the musician can release, well,
everything. With some musicians, every
note, dog fart, or improvised jam session seems to see the light of day. This has not only been a facet of digital
distribution either; there is something of a cultural bug to
release-release-release, with our current interest in “deluxe and expanded
editions” wherein we are privy to all the stuff that wasn’t deemed good enough
for the original release. For the most
part we’re learning that such material was left off for good reason.
Phil Elverum may have been one of the architects of this
general trend. Take his breaththrough
release, The Microphones’ Mt. Eerie. Not content to simply release the album to
stand on its own merit alone, Elverum also released two companion E.P.s: The Drums from Mt. Eerie and The Singing from Mt. Eerie. They are more or less that: the vocal and
drum tracks from the Mt. Eerie album
and while surprisingly interesting in some regards, one can’t help but wonder
if they are really necessary.
Before I go much further, I should be blunt in stating that
Phil Elverum is a kind of genius. Even
when simply passable, Elverum’s work contains moments of breathtaking beauty
and heartbreak. So it is with his most
recent releases, two albums and a related 130 page “Winter Journal.” The title of that early Microphones record has
been adopted as his most frequently used stage moniker these days and, as such,
it graces two of his three most recent releases: Lost Wisdom and Dawn,
both of which have been released as “Mt.
Eerie.” Just to confuse matters further, there is
also a book version of Dawn under
Elverum’s given name.
Perhaps the starting point to make sense of these various
releases is this “winter journal,” the 130 page volume Dawn (Buenaventura Press). It presents Elverum’s journal during a
winter spent in a remote cabin in Norway in 2002/2003. Here we get the day-to-day minutiae of
Elverum’s life in the sunless and bleak winter darkness: the struggle to
collect wood and water, the crushing boredom, the weirdness of isolation, and
the shock of occasional return trips into town for supplies.
“Hello. I am a
self-mythologizer. That’s just how it
is.” So Elverum begins, but despite that
claim, there’s little real self-mythologizing in the volume’s 130 pages. The journal tries to be self-mythologizing
from time to time, but mostly it wanders through a kind of muddled thinking
that circles back on itself with a regularity that makes it something of a
difficult read past the few fifty pages or so.
Couple that with the volume’s small size and microscopic font and the
reader is in for a struggle. But perhaps
the more important issue is that Elverum’s journal reads like the complaining
of a teenager bitching incessantly about virtually everything and searching for
some kind of “authentic experience,” all the while doing little to
nothing. Its myopic focus is at times
fascinating, but in the end it’s just too much.
In large part, the problem with Dawn as a book is that it lacks any kind of explanation for the
various points raised. We learn that
Elverum has broken up with a longtime girlfriend who is now, apparently, in a
relationship with Elverum’s friend, but we learn little about the relationship,
about the friend, about the girl herself.
It was in some ways self-destructive, but beyond that we’re left to our
imagination. What is not left to our
imagination is the constant wood chopping and water collection that were the
primary activities of Elverum’s day-to-day life. Elverum does an excellent job here of
presenting what the physical aspects of his life were like, but one wonders why
the winter might be interesting to an outsider as it does not even seem
particularly interesting to Elverum himself.
Nonetheless, there are some statements that claim a kind of
“enlightenment” as with a February entry:
am probably changing a lot here. At
least from where I sit now everything in the whole world seems totally
different than it ever has. Everything
is different. You name it, I feel
different about it. So it’s proven true
that we keep changing and finding things out and forgetting them, and it won’t
Elverum’s claim here is natural enough and it is the kind of
claim we strongly desire when reading this book, but it is also
unsubstantiated. There is nothing in the
text to suggest that there has been any change whatever and self-mythologized
or not, the Elverum that starts this journal and the Elverum that ends it are
exactly the same-at least on the page.
What helps some is the inclusion of the Mt. Eerie CD Dawn.
Tucked into the back cover of the book and also pressed separately as a
vinyl release, Dawn (P.W. Elverum
& Sun) presents recently recorded versions of all the songs Elverum wrote
during his winter in Norway. (Interestingly there is little to no mention
of songwriting in the journal itself.)
The renditions here are sparse and as chilling as the landscape Elverum
inhabited and taken with the text they actually seem to make more sense of the
journal than the journal is able to do on its own. The Dawn songs as we have them here are stripped down, mostly consisting of
Elverum’s gently strummed guitar and vocal.
There is an immediacy here as Elverum sings: “Hope unhand me, I finally
yell. Let me dwell on bad news. Let me wallow in it.” Given that we’ve read
pages and pages of Elverum being wrapped up in his own thoughts while endless
collecting wood and water, the words ring true.
The songs also make one wonder why the journals don’t
include the lyrics and notebooks for the truly creative work Elverum was doing
at the time. For whatever reason we are
not made privy that that material and instead are given a list of the pop
culture references Elverum makes during the journal as an addendum, including a
list of books Elverum read but did not reference. Is knowing that Elverum read Walt Whitman and
Carson McCullers useful in understand the journal? Not at all.
Why then it is made available to us?
Perhaps to prove that Elverum read “good stuff” while he was at the
cabin, the claim himself as a kind of intellectual adventurer? That’s the best guess I can make given the
material at hand.
What continues to be interesting, though, is the fact that
Elverum, at least by way of his output, has chosen to center on this particular
winter. He released eleven of these same
songs in an earlier incarnation titled 11
Old Songs. Now we have Dawn (the music, as both CD and vinyl)
and Dawn (the book). Furthermore, two of the songs also appear on Lost Wisdom, Mt. Eerie’s
recent collaboration with Eric’s Trip’s Julie Doiron and guitarist Fred
Squire. Clearly Elverum himself feels
that there is some sense of importance or significance during that winter of
2002/2003 as he continues to release and comb through material developed from
that period. Surely it’s important to
him in some way, although again, as outside listeners, the actual significance
is blurry at best.
What puts this issue into even starker relief is Lost Wisdom (Southern Records), by far
the most successful of this trio of releases.
Not only are the songs themselves stronger, but Elverum’s selection of
the two best songs from the Dawn period to be resurrected here at show that there is some sense of critical
acumen at work. The arrangements here are nearly as sparse as those from Dawn, but the interplay of twin
vocalists Doiron and Elverum, along with Squire’s occasional guitar textures
all coalesce to create an album that is breathtaking in its beauty. Indeed some of the tracks, in particular the
gorgeous “Voice in Headphones”-indeed a holdover from the Dawn material-will leave all but the most heartless listener in
It’s tempting to close with some blanket statement about
Elverum’s work, to perhaps ask him to truncate his output a bit so that fans
need not hunt through the coal mine to find the diamond. It’s tempting to do so, but I will
refrain. The truth is that Elverum’s
material-as “completist” as it tends to be-is consistent in its beauty and
grace and even when he fails he does so pushing his envelope. Do you need
all of it? Likely not. Fans will reach for Dawn, perhaps the book and the vinyl. For everyone else, there’s Lost Wisdom, one of those diamonds in
Elverum’s catalog and, at least to this listener, truly one of the most
beautiful albums of the year.