Mount Eerie Dawn

[P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2008]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: cabin music
Others: Woelv, Thanksgiving, D+

Although The Microphones' final full-length Mount Eerie found our protagonist Phil Elverum dead, a new philosophical approach seemed to coincide with his rebirth as Mount Eerie the artist. No longer singing about being trapped under ice or eaten by vultures, his transition from The Microphones to Mount Eerie is marked by self-reflection and humility. Which sorta makes sense: anyone staring long enough at the expanses of nature is in a prime position to experience personal growth, humbling as it may be. His sweeping gestures extended so far with The Microphones, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the reach itself became an object of question.

Appropriately, Dawn was written during Elverum's well-documented sabbatical to Norway, where he lodged in a cabin alone during the winter of 2002/2003 (after Mount Eerie the album and prior to No Flashlight). Armed with only a nylon acoustic, Elverum runs swiftly through 19 songs, most of which fans have heard endlessly through live shows, bootlegs, and alternate full-band studio versions. With some exceptions -- notably, "Great Ghosts, "Wooly Mammoth's Mighty Absence," "Cold Mountain" -- the tracks depart little from earlier incarnations. Musically modest and solitary, yet lyrically adventurous and full of life, Dawn sounds very transitional, and I don't mean that pejoratively.

True to its title, the lyrics often suggest an awakening of perception or understanding, a new beginning. Unsurprisingly, Dawn plays like a musical diary (it's even sequenced in the order in which Elverum wrote the songs). The tracks are intensely personal, ranging from critiques of nostalgia and objectivity to relationships and self-awareness. Indeed, for all the misconceptions of Elverum as some simple nature dude, the lyrics on this album point to a rare sophistication: Phil isn't retreating from culture through escapist lyrics; he's confronting, reconciling, and then making it work for him.

On "I Say ‘No’," Elverum sings: "I close my eyes/ I say nothing now/ There's a ringing in my ear that's faint and high/ And when I listen close to it/ It says:" Here, the song abruptly stops, and you're left pondering what that faint ringing is saying. A few years back, he capped off a live set in Minneapolis with this peculiar ending. With uncomfortable shuffling and puzzled reactions, the audience stayed silent for what seemed like an eternity, as Elverum sat motionless, eyes closed. It was an excruciating yet delicate moment that seemed to slow everything down to a snail pace; I didn't want it to end. The crowd eventually gave in, awkwardly, with hesitant clapping, but that moment, even in retrospect, felt beyond time.

Much like his other works, Dawn is knee-deep in mud. You can hear the seams -- the out-of-tune harmonies ("Climb Over," "Dead of Night"), misplaced notes ("We Squirm"), the rhythmic flux ("I Say ‘No’"). Elverum has always couched his worldviews in a fleetingly imprecise, ill-defined momentum -- his songs don't really sound like "songs"; they sound like versions. And they've always had a sort of romanticized purity, an effortless, in-the-moment construction. Perhaps that's why you see his writing scrawled on the package when you order directly from him, or maybe why his projects are so multi-faceted and multi-layered while retaining a sense of whimsy, of unhinged creativity. The profundity is offset by capriciousness and DIY ethics.

Clearly, Elverum's investments lately are in words rather than sonics. So, it's not that surprising that, in a time when aesthetics reigns over content, some critics lamented No Flashlight's emphasis on lyrics while championing the stylistic transience of Black Wooden Ceiling Opening, his ‘metal’ EP. It's not a matter of people listening for the wrong things; it's that people listen for different things, no matter the intentions of the artist. Dawn, to me, serves as a perfect bridge between Elverum's intellectual depth and his melodic grasp (the melodies in "Goodbye Hope" and "Great Ghosts" may be the sweetest he's ever crafted). It may lack the bells and whistles that normally grace his albums, but fans should be more than happy to trade in roaring climaxes for mini-epiphanies this time around.

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