Prolific songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Phil Elverum has donned both the monikers Mount Eerie and The Microphones as recording aliases over the years, also tampering with the spelling of his own given name (Elvrum to Elverum). He has managed upwards of twenty releases, depending on how they are counted. His newest album, Clear Moon, was recorded in an abandoned church that Elverum bought and repurposed as a recording studio, referring to it simply as “the Unknown.” The album is the first half of what will be two, contrasting, thematic records. The second release, slated for September 2012, will be entitled Ocean Roar.
In 2001, Elverum’s album The Glow Pt. 2 garnered widespread acclaim as an acoustically avant-garde recording triumph. Though that work can’t be called entirely accessible, it was full of subdued pop hooks and short, catchy folk songs buried between swells of cacophonous, textured noise. Shortly after this period, Elverum was drawn, as the oceans are forever pulled toward the moon, from Olympia, WA to his hometown of Anacortes—a small island community off the coast of far northern Washington. There, Elverum acts as an integral part of the small, close-knit community, running his own record label, P.W. Elverum and Sun, and assisting (along with former Beat Happening member Bret Lunsford, also from Anacortes) with the now defunct annual music festival, What the Heck Fest.
The move also seemed to turn Elverum from the bright lights of increasing publicity and notoriety deeper into his own introspective mind. His albums have become increasingly experimental, beginning with the release of “drums only” and “vocals only” editions of his Glow Pt. 2 follow-up Mount Eerie that preceded his shift from the Microphones moniker. From there, Elverum has released albums that fall into myriad genres from sparse electronica to experimental noise, and draw from influences ranging from television theme songs (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks) to black metal.
Elverum has long been concerned with themes and motifs, often naturalistic or that opposing the naturalistic world, that recur and repeat throughout the entirety of his extensive catalogue, including but not limited to: the moon, mountains, darkness, fog, oceans, homes, health, relationships, self abuse, animals, the human condition, and technology. Elverum’s lyrical observations reflect life’s simplicity, but often call into question basic assumptions. In songs, he might wonder about the way a particular body shape feels to inhabit or openly denigrate listeners for smoking. When I interviewed him in 2007, he questioned the practice and potential inhumanity of owning a dog, or any animal, just before his song “Domesticated Dog” was released on a 7” single. Clear Moon does not diverge from these grounded, reflective lyrical studies, furthering the foundation and raw elements with which Elverum has worked for years.
Musically, Clear Moon also possesses approaches similar to previous Elverum efforts, but it feels as though the artist is ever honing in on exactly what he wants to create. The album is not as experimental as Wind’s Poem and nowhere near as straightforward and sparse as Dawn or No Flashlight. Generally, it feels unhurried. Clear Moon takes its time, develops its wandering thoughts, and fades away when its natural progression is finished. The album opens with “Through the Trees Pt. 2,” slowly fading in with minimalist strumming. Soon, twin guitars are bouncing in and out of the left and right speakers in alternation, skittering across the aural template. The swirling effect is trance-like, and recalls production techniques Elverum has previously employed. The lyrics are a meditation on the place where Elverum lives, and contain his trademark humor in lines such as: “I know there’s no other world: mountains and websites.” The song simmers, softly coming to an end before giving way to the pulsing, subtle distortion of “the Place Lives,” a song for which the lyrics read like Japanese poetry:
“Looking east in the spring
through ashes and fog
Elverum described the record to Pitchfork as a mostly guitar driven, clear album, but some of the tracks beg to differ. At least, “the Place I Live” with its murky, minor synth and heart beat pulse and “Over Dark Water” with its eerie, operatic chanting that succumbs to chaotic noise both possess an ominous sense of mystery. It leaves us fascinated as to just how dark and experimental Ocean Roar will be, which he promises will be “weirder.” The instrumental tracks at positions two and four, both titled “(something),” guide the songs into three distinct sections, with the middle trio of tracks emerging as the darkest. The warning brass notes on the brooding “Lone Bell,” its marchy snare, and huge, atmospheric production captivate the listener’s attention so effectively that the walking, cartoon-character-creeping bass line almost goes unnoticed without listening on headphones.
Clear Moon represents a difficult place to start for newcomers to the world of Phil Elverum, but its palatability should not inform its greatness. While the album is not as groundbreaking or exciting and fresh as earlier releases by Elverum, this is not its aim. Clear Moon is more deliberate, rich, and focused. It feels like an experienced artist working late in his career, recalling masters such as William Butler Yeats, who in many ways moved past the attentions of his readers, embarking into the unknown with his final work “A Vision.” Elverum, too, has moved beyond listeners from his earlier days, delving deeper than ever into the mystical unknown and doing so with great confidence, providing a pervasive sense of calm completeness with Clear Moon.