On Completism or “Why Phil Elv(e)rum must have seen me coming…”

I’m a sucker for a man with a big discography. As with so many things in life, a man’s discography should be judged, not by its size, but by what he does with it. But just as thrill-seekers will offer no better reason for scaling Everest etc. than ‘because it’s there’ I too find the gravity of a mountainous discography pulls me in.

And of course if you know Phil Elverum’s (née Elvrum) work, you’ll doubtless have anticipated that I’m heading for some clever pun on ‘Mount Eerie’ – for indeed Elverum has spent most of the last decade writing cryptic albums about the intriguingly named mountain which he grew up next to, and the world around it.

A teensy bit of history, Phil Elvrum (as was) started a one-man-plus-guests band called The Microphones in 1996 and did the usual 90’s American alt.rock thing of releasing lots of limited 7”’s, tapes and detritus alongside ‘proper’ albums… before hitting his critical peak with an album called ‘The Glow pt.2’ which I heard recently for the first time, prompting me to excitedly tell the other members of Local Sports Team ‘I think it might be as good as ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ (not a claim I make lightly).

Next he did an artistic backflip, releasing an LP called ‘Mount Eerie’ which had an 18 minute long first track which was mostly drum solo, and which charted some inscrutable narrative about birth, life, death, the universe and everything. He then changed the name of his band from The Microphones to Mount Eerie, changed his surname (in liner notes at least) from ‘Elvrum’ to ‘Elverum’ and has been releasing gorgeous abstract folk/black metal hybrid albums ever since, always centred on the mysteries of nature and the fleetingness of life.

Mount Eerie released two albums last year called ‘Clear Moon’ and ‘Ocean Roar’ which were recorded at the same time and though released separately are clearly two halves of a conceptual whole. In fact it would be truer to say that they’re just the latest parts of one long album which Elverum’s been working on ever since ‘Mount Eerie’ the LP. Most records have a ‘part 2’ of a song which appeared on a previous record. Certain phrases ‘the lights of town’ ‘through the trees’ recur in numerous songs. The sense throughout the body of work that he’s always grasping at something which eludes him is tangible.

Sonically the Microphones and Mount Eerie are quite distinct. Both are usually centered around acoustic guitars, but The Microphones then play with recording technology to deconstruct the songs. The use of panning is quite integral to some Microphones ‘riffs’ in a way I’ve never come across elsewhere, tape manipulation plays a role, as does destructive use of EQ’ing and distortion. Some of the earliest Microphones songs have fun lyrics about recording technology, such as ‘Feedback (Life, Love, Loop)’ which is about microphones and speakers ‘singing to each other’. Nice.

There’s a sense of playfulness and spontaneity to it, often the guitars are out of tune, a little out of time, it’s clear he prioritises ‘feel’ over perfection. He also uses a trick once or twice that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years, which is starting a propulsive punky backing, then gradually fading it down low and using it as the bed for a slow acoustic track. Damn him. I still want credit for thinking of it ‘first’ if I ever use it.

The last track on ‘The Glow Pt.2’ mostly consists of a single ‘bong’ sound – which has already reared its head throughout the album – repeating for about seven minutes, whilst snatches of the album reprise themselves almost inaudibly underneath. The ‘Mount Eerie’ LP which followed it then begins with the exact same sound, gradually mutating into a rhythm track for the opening song. I’m sold. Where do I sign up?

IMG_2412

Mount Eerie the band, outside some of the earlier recordings which just seem like slightly duller versions of The Microphones, by contrast is more polished. It really hits its stride with a 10” vinyl EP called ‘Mount Eerie pt’s 6 & 7’ (housed in a 112 photo book pictured above – don’t get me started on the care he takes with packaging, we’ll be here all day) which really started to nail this ‘Black Wooden’ (i.e. black metal using wooden instruments) genre Elverum’s trying to invent. You could mention shoegaze and Loveless and be in vaguely the right territory. My knowledge of black metal is, and is likely to remain, very limited but you can see the wall of dense sound approach in some tracks. Conceptually it works with the whole ‘Mount Eerie’/raw elemental nature idea – what better evokes the roar of the sea or the grandiosity of a mountain than a searing wall of distorted guitar? Can’t do that with a groovebox!

Most of his albums feature one or more instrumental tracks simply entitled ‘(something)’ – as if he created something he couldn’t explain and just included it anyway, hoping someone else could make sense of it. As a result, ‘(something)’ by Mount Eerie will probably soon top my last.fm charts (toppling, I think, a track by Guided by Voices, another band with an epic discography).

All this to say I’m really enjoying his work. And I’m enjoying it all the more precisely because there is such a vast body of it to dip into. I am cursed with an old fashioned affliction – an attention span. I’m willing to comb through nearly twenty years of a guy’s lyrics to see if he mentions ‘the lights of town’ again because that’s part of the fun of being a music fan for me. I narrowly avoided wasting a small fortune in my teenage years on the complete works of egotistical jazzwank bore Frank Zappa, precisely ‘because it was there’ (thankfully one day I had an epiphany ‘this is just awful’ – I think it was about halfway through the third disc of ‘Läther’…).

I’ve always been this way – I think it comes from my first real musical love affair being with Pulp – going into Andy’s Records in Bolton and discovering that they’d had a career as old as me before ‘Common People’ and poring over early albums like ‘Freaks’ and ‘It’ without really caring/noticing that they weren’t anywhere near as good as the records that steered me to them. I think that’s where I got my interest in always wanting to engage with an artist’s entire body of work. The same impulse that had me buy the two Captain Beefheart albums which are universally derided as being utter shit, including by him. I knew they were shit, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy them. I just wanted to understand why they were shit, to see the artistic bridge between his two ‘good’ eras.

Gotta catch 'em all

Gotta catch ’em all

In my own work I also include these little bits of continuity, repeated lines, parts 1 2 3’s, song suites, forward referencing the next album before I’ve finished the current one. My ultimate imagined listener remains the person who’s heard it all – a demographic which is in single figures if it exists at all. It’s why I finally put everything I’ve ever done on Bandcamp in 2011 (something Elverum has also done).

So this overt continuity of theme and sound is something which Elverum could have done specifically to get my hard earned paypal dollars (that and self-releasing and selling direct, which I try and support wherever possible). He saw me coming! Me and my big omnivorous attention span.

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One thought on “On Completism or “Why Phil Elv(e)rum must have seen me coming…”

  1. “Welcome Nowhere” by Thanksgiving was our first release, “ELV000”, way back in 2004. It sold out, and in 2008 we decided to re-release it and include all the other amazing songs from the sessions that didn’t fit onto the first version. Now the reissue is sold out. Here now for sale are the last remainders of the materials from the reissue, being offered basically at cost.

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