Gravitas in the grocery store: Phil Elverum links his music to a place — his hometown of Anacortes, Wash. — and looks for the meaning in ‘non-poetic moments.’”
Mount Eerie's two 2012 LPs offer powerfully opposed visions of small-town isolation
Mount Eerie, the multifaceted recording project of Washington's Phil Elverum, is known for moments of stunning self-awareness, combinations of sounds and words that connect with elemental struggles at the core of the human condition. But “Through the Trees, Pt. 2,” the opening salvo from this year’s Clear Moon, stands apart as a statement of artistic purpose and clarity from a man whose songwriting grows more expressive with each new offering.
“Misunderstood and disillusioned, I go on describing this place and the way it feels to live and die,” he begins, whispering over an acoustic guitar dowsed in watery reverb and an ethereal gauze of synthesizer. Later, he sings more boldly, adding: “I meant all my songs not as a picture of the woods, but as a reminder that I briefly live.”
Elverum has been working under the Mount Eerie moniker for about eight years, moving on from a shorter stint spent recording as The Microphones. In that time, he’s pursued music with a concrete sense of purpose and place that belies his ever-expanding sonic variety. The aching, stripped-back folk delicacy of 2008’s Lost Wisdom was followed a year later by Wind’s Poem, a jarring and unrelenting blast of black-metal aggression. But in all of its different forms, Mount Eerie’s music is intrinsically connected to the influence of Elverum’s home — the small Washington town of Anacortes.
“It is important for me to have things linked to a place,” he explains over the phone from his beloved hometown, his voice possessing the same whispered insistence that it does on record. “It’s kind of an annoyance of mine or whatever. I just always want people to have a place linked to their thing. And I know I’m unusual in my roots to this particular place and my self-identification with this place. I know that most people don’t feel that way.”
The link between Anacortes and Mount Eerie has never been stronger than it is on Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, the two LPs Elverum released this year. Recorded simultaneously during a long break from touring, the albums embody different aspects of Elverum’s existence.
Clear Moon is an ethereal exploration of his day-to-day struggle to find meaning in the mundane. A soft, melancholic wash of strings, synthesizers and noise dominates the album’s sonic landscape as Elverum’s narratives wander through life in Anacortes, connecting the minute details of his surroundings to essential philosophical struggles.
Ocean Roar sparks into life where Elverum’s search for meaning solidifies into crushing doubt. Organs blare like frigid maritime winds and guitars grow into ominous black metal mountains as Elverum intermittently adds a few well-chosen words to give the chaos meaning. The brutal and beautiful opener “Pale Lights” pauses briefly in the middle of its nine-minute onslaught, allowing Elverum to murmur for a moment before he is swallowed up by the clamor. “Pale lights from other islands,” he sings, “slow flashing through blue dusk across the water, seeing island shapes. ‘Who is there?’ I call. A small yelp on the wind and then more roaring.”
“Clear Moon is kind of about those moments of clarity, and the sounds that are on the record are kind of meant to embody that, those clear moments of perception,” Elverum says. “Ocean Roar is the opposite, but it’s still the same thing, like seeking perception, but your view is obscured by this fog wall or ocean-roaring sound and just feeling baffled by the world, which I think are two sides of the same coin.”
For Elverum, his day-to-day frustrations stem mostly from a need to find deeper meaning in inconsequential events. On “Through the Trees, Pt. 2” he pictures himself trudging tiredly through a store, lost in his own thoughts and separated from the rest of the world. “Can you find a wildness in your body and walk through the store after work holding it high?” he intones with understated passion. But the words don't come from him. He attributes them to “the tumultuous place” where he lives, which Elverum personifies, allowing his surroundings to shout his own doubts back at him. He loves where he lives, but as with anyone, his home can become a mirror to his own insecurities. It’s a reality that Elverum portrays with poetic precision, making Clear Moon and Ocean Roar an essential LP tandem.
“I guess in those moments that might seem depressing I’m just trying to paint a picture of an everyday, non-poetic moment,” he says. “The song is, by default, in this poetic zone of romance, so it’s nice to take it back to a moment of reality. In that song, that’s exactly the point.”
Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Mount Eerie, with Meghanz
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, Sept. 20 (9 p.m. $10. thegreyeagle.com)