Phil Elverum, based in Washington state and best known for his musical projects The Microphones and Mount Eerie, has trafficked and produced prolifically in all manner of medium: song composition and production, letterpress printing, photography, filmmaking, and last but not least endearing, a 365-day comic calendar called Fancy People Adventures. He has also effectively retained the rights to all of his music so that he’s been able to republish his entire catalogue under the label guise PW Elverum & Sun. In my effort to communicate something of Elverum’s work, I’ve been led back and back again to the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who will — unbeknownst to him — be offering us subtitular fodder as we explore…
3 Things We Can Learn About Song Making from Phil Elverum
“Who has not sat before his own heart’s curtain? It lifts: And the scenery is falling apart.”
1. The Role of the Voice
“Truly to sing — that is a different breath.”
The effectiveness of Elverum’s style reminds us about the injury, and profound misunderstanding, incurred when we put the form of expression called singing in a box. Consistent throughout his tome of a discography is Elverum’s role as the still, small voice in the midst of any instrumental and often stormy weather system. Even when everything else is cranking on 1,000 cylinders, the singer stays his restrained, measured, aching course.
His phrasing, melody, and dynamics have a quality I would call speak-sing; there are moments when the listener feels as though they are the lone recipient of some high-wire courage, pandora’s box pillow-talk. An almost whispered, tonally imperfect delivery offers the raw quality of intimate revelation, or the boldness of saying something difficult but true to an empty room.
In tangible, practice-able terms: Elverum doesn’t seem to be putting much effort toward landing squarely on pitch after pitch. He seems to care more about touching into the depth of feeling, the center of gravity of any given song — and trusting his voice, sometimes only hinting at melody, to offer us a good-enough window into what he clearly feels is ultimately inexpressible.
The take-away: The integrity of a vocalist has as much to do with being earnest and vulnerable as it does with technical ability. Lacking in one is only an opportunity for the other to become your strongest asset.
2. Song Form
“Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.”
I am hugely impressed by lots of things about Elverum’s work: how un-formulaic and unpredictable so many of Elverum’s tracks are, the staggering variety of soundscapes rich and spare, how many literal sounds are integrated into these sprawling visions, how consistently surprised I am at the hairpin turns his songs so often take, and most incredibly, how ultimately coherent every track is.
Off of his album It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, his track “The Glow” has a sonic build so bizarre and staggered that from its slumber-y wakening of an introduction, the appearance of what sounds like a cold wind blowing and a subterranean, sonic soup beneath it suddenly breaking through the static, clinging to the bright thread of a woman’s voice to plug itself, electrically, into the dance-y, industrial midsection of the song is somehow — frenetically, spontaneously — intuitive. The slow tension at the beginning of “The Glow” is so timid and leashed that we feel a joy and a freedom when the lively drums come on the scene. And sweetly, after the frenzy, Elverum lays us down to rest. The 11-and-a-half minute song feels like a trip through an eerily familiar, otherworldy landscape… a dreamscape.
There is a fractal quality to most of Elverum’s instrumentation that is the opposite of rote, of straight geometry. His use of sampling and layering is sometimes gossamery and gaunt, sometimes chaotic and robust, and often both. With the diversity of his sonic palette, he grows soundscapes — dreamscapes, soulscapes — that are fathomless: they contain multitudes.
The take away: It can work to the advantage of a song to, instead of committing to a structure, let it feel its own way to full expression, even if it asks for a crazy bouquet of things. It is a seriously fun advantage when experimenting in evocative soundscape making and dream translation to have an arsenal of tools (instruments, samples) at your creative disposal. Think of it like cooking. The more spices, and flavors, and general edible stuff you use, the more rich and nuanced the final product. Yum.
3. Lyrical Breadth
“I want to be with those who know secret things, or else alone.”
Elverum’s writing is tersely poetic. Often, it bites like sandpaper. It is rarely soft. He recalls, to me, a more verbose Paul Baribeau, or a less declarative John Darnielle. He employs a great deal of wilderness metaphors, snowy summits and ripening dawns. What I can presume about his urgency, his creative philosophy, or his mission statement can be heard in these lyrics (and so many others, but here more succinctly) from his song “Wolf Mountain Howls: ‘Into the World’”:
Do not be afraid of going into the world
We go home
Going in, we go home
Into sex and disasters and living unknown
You will be ‘in the world’ by letting things touch
You will spend time in the mountains
You will spend time in the world.
Carl Jung and Matsuo Bashō alike would be proud of our Phil Elverum, and the way he speaks to the shadowy porousness of the human endeavor. Hearing Elverum’s poetry puts me into a contemplative space that is far from cerebral. Like everything else about his music, his words strive for specificity without employing cliché, and they are always more felt than thought. As much as he writes in images and striking anvil sparks about felt inner realities, in the same breath he grounds the potentially airy philosophizing with the mundane. To follow suit, here’s a demonstrative lyric from the track “Pumpkin” off his most recent album Sauna:
In the middle of November, smashed on the rocks
At the edge of the island, a bright thing caught my eye
It was a pumpkin half
I walked to the bookstore in a rain that silently filled the air
All the lights in the world were off or dim
And there was nothing to do but walk to town and back
Without citing a specific instance — but I promise the evidence is out there — Elverum also does an incredible job of articulating the animal, Id, chaotic experience in ways that feel percussive to read, even apart from their instrumentation.
The take away: There is so much to write about, and so many ways to write it. Elverum travels to the end of himself and back, again and again, retracing his steps over ground that shifts with the everyday, trying to document the amorphous, baffling reality of it all. A thread is emerging here in the course of this examination: the body of all our own experiences is immense, wild, and manifold. If we can make it so, our art would surely benefit to honor that.