“The music-lover experiences, in listening to a concert, a joy of a different order from the joy given by natural sounds, such as the murmur of the brook, the uproar of a torrent, the whistling of the wind in a forest, or the harmonies of human speech based on reason rather than on aesthetics.” –Guillaume Apollinaire, 1913
“I meant all my songs/ Not as a picture of the woods/ But just to remind myself/ That I briefly live.” –Mount Eerie, 2012
It’s not easy to write about Mount Eerie. For one, there’s the music’s iconoclasm. Phil Elverum’s songs do not lend themselves to easy categorization. While each track might momentarily cohere as a form of “folk” or “chamber pop” or “black metal,” they just as quickly sink back into a fog of noise and distortion. And then there’s the music’s majesty. Elverum the lyricist might by preoccupied with the destructive forces of nature, but his sound — its intensity, its dynamism — simply mocks human expression. As a reviewer, you’re not wrestling with the question of whether or not the music is any good. Rather, you’re confronted with the problem of writing about music that seems to demand nothing less than silence. Speaking about the music of Mount Eerie feels like dumping your trash in the woods.
Elverum himself has wrestled with the immediacy of nature and the need for its expression. On his most aggressive albums — Mount Eerie and Wind’s Poem, for example — he has staged this drama via noise and sound. “Let my voice bellow about you,” he sings on “The Universe,” his voice barely rising above the squalling noise, “And let my voice echo out from caves and mines.” Clear Moon, his latest, certainly continues in this vein. As the first part of a two-album cycle, it pits moments of stunned clarity against dreary noise, exploring a tension that is both sonic and existential. And yet one detects here a new sensibility, a new approach that is both more humble and perhaps more honest. On Clear Moon, Elverum comes across less the heroic Viking and more like a lost boatman of suburbia. He’s given up the barren wastes of fire and ice for the more humdrum but no less existential threats of everyday life in the Pacific Northwest. Most notably, Elverum — “struggling sideways” — can no longer maintain a distinction between human life and natural life. He’s relinquished the romantic agon of his earlier work and instead stalks a surreal boundary-land that is neither fallen nor pristine. Throughout, he confronts the messiness of his relation to nature and the very unnaturalness, the sheer artificiality of his work of as an artist. “Dark smoke fills the air,” he sings on the first track, “Some from the fire in my house/ Some from me driving around.” The world of Clear Moon is a world of both “mountains and websites,” a destabilized world, a discontinuous world, for sure, but one world nonetheless; “There is no other world,” Elverum sings wearily, as if finally relinquishing his idealism, “and there has never been.”
There’s much to be said for this new ecology, despite its weary delivery. It suggests a more fluid continuity of civilization and nature and thus a more subtle sense of responsibility. As importantly, for Elverum’s fans, it also signals an interesting leap forward in sound and sonic production. Before all else, Clear Moon is the work of a studio artist. It was recorded over a 14-month period in a “de-sanctified church,” a more or less self-contained space dedicated to the production of (un)holy sound. More than any other work in Elverum’s canon, the album approaches the condition of sound art; lyrical drama recedes into the background to make way for wide swathes of synth and droning organs, motorik beats, and large celestial chimes. “Over Dark Water,” for example, utilizes the resonating church space to create a soaring anti-hymn to night and nothingness; a lone electric guitar riff is joined first by an angel’s howl and then a chanting choir and screeching organ, all of which resonates louder and louder on a single note until the whole unholy assemblage falls to pieces. “Clear Moon” is held together by a single basso hum; drums pummel, voices chant, bells chime, but the sound hangs in the eerie air without climax or relief. With this attention to sonic textures and tapestries, I believe, the album seems to cut a fine line through the ‘black metal’ bombast of Wind’s Poem and the delicate chamber hymns of Lost Wisdom. If anything, it seems most invested in the synthesized surrealism that Elverum pursued previously on songs like “Through the Trees” and “Between Two Mysteries.” The influence of Lynch and Badalamenti is unmistakable. Elverum uses sound here to capture the unnerving unreliability of everyday life; the tedium of the civilized world gives way to the violence of nature gives way to the grace of the supernatural.
Another way of saying this is that Clear Moon marks a significant transition from visual space to acoustic space. To me, Elverum’s most interesting music is concerned not with nature per se, but with horizons — the anxious relation between human consciousness and the bewildering spaces it inhabits. His best work deals with the terror of being perceived — or worse, not being perceived — within an alienating landscape; “See me squint my eyes,” he sings on “The Sun,” “See me learn to live without my loved ones/ See me scan the sky/ And see the flock of birds goodbye/ And turn to go inside.” In his preoccupation with the relations between identity, perspective, and horizon, Elverum shows deep kinship with the American transcendentalists, such as Thoreau, Whitman (think Pip at sea), and, most of all, the landscape painter Asher Durand. At the same time, though, he’s always come across as a visual (nearly cinematic) artist, projecting his personal crises across the vast vistas of, say, Norway or his native home of Anacortes, Washington. With Clear Moon, though, the studio-bound Elverum seems to take a more fully sonic approach to the construction of space, and the results prove both strange and exciting. Two tracks here, “the Place Lives” and “the Place I Live,” work brilliantly together to demonstrate the sheer dynamism and malleability of this new sonic space. The first carries the black metal blitz of Wind’s Poem to new evil ends, but the real thrill of the song lies in the way it ceaselessly opens up onto new sonic depths, the ear tumbling vertiginously over a void, but nonetheless held aloft by fuzzy draughts of noise. On the second track, a series of shifting strings — some low and throbbing, others light and ethereal — set the same place into woozy motion; the voice drifts in and out of an airy sonic terrain, lazily noting the shifts above and below him. As a whole, the album is full of disparate textures and tempos, at once rock-solid and incredibly fluid — “The landscape/ A blanket on stone/ Land waves are rolling,” sings Elverum on “the Place I Live,” as if he’s finally figured it all out again.
In this, I’m reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s account of the difference between visual space and acoustic space. For McLuhan, visual space is an artifact of Western civilization; it is space perceived as logical and coherent, at once homogenous and static, organized according to a linear vanishing point and thereby constrained by sequentialism. Acoustic space, which McLuhan equates with primitive societies, busts open the limits of visual space; both multi-centered and reverberating — “gyroscopic,” McLuhan claims — acoustic space dissolves the civilized borders of perception, “everything happening at once, in a state of constant flux.” For McLuhan, sound, the GPS system of the human body, establishes as it dissolves one’s place in the world, and, as song, sustains the possibility of other landscapes altogether. Clear Moon meanders gorgeously in this way; it is much less coherent than any Mount Eerie effort (which always seemed to suffer slightly under their own conceptualization), but it claims for itself a new openness in the process. Nothing expresses this better than the bewildering structure of “House Shape.” Here, as sound seems to rain around the house’s walls and windows, the dwelling takes new shape over and over again, inside and out, “lost in an unfolding.” Its sole inhabitant — a seemingly entranced Elverum — appears caught in a “separate world of seeing,” a “lost world separate from the usual,” until the song ends and his real eyes crack open again. Again, one can’t help but think that this strange space — part psychological, part naturalistic, fully acoustic — exists on the same map as the Red Room, Winkie’s Diner, or Club Silencio.
I’m generally suspicious of narratives of maturity, especially when applied to artists and the trajectory of their work. But while Clear Moon announces itself as a step forward (“I’ve held aloft some delusions/ From now on I will be perfectly clear”), it locates this new-found grace in both incoherence and insignificance (“Tossed on the waves/ Missing/ From moment to moment of being/ Carried wherever”). The album is wonderfully uneven and mysteriously unfinished, and while we might look forward to its second half for a sense of balance and completion (Ocean Roar is due later this year), I’m content enough to dwell amidst its own jagged remains. Sure, there are a few missteps along the way. “Lone Bell” is built on a bass line so damn catchy that it tends to overwhelm the more subtle constructions that surround it; it’s the one riff you’ll be humming long after the album ends. Also, I must confess that the last three songs fail to make much of an impression on me; while I appreciate the tension-and-release dynamism of “Clear Moon” and “Yawning Sky,” their drama pales in comparison to the sonic experiments that define the rest of the album. And yet quibbling about these acoustic spaces is like quibbling about natural spaces. As I said, there’s a place where saying anything at all seems like a disgrace, and Elverum’s found it once again.