(P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.; 2012)
By Maura McAndrew | 13 July 2012
Mount Eerie’s Clear Moon reminds me of a great film I saw last year called Take Shelter, the story of a man named Curtis who suffers nightmarish visions of an impending apocalyptic storm. We can’t be sure if these visions are real or the product of a schizophrenic mind, but it’s terrifying either way. That film and this record are both works that revolve around certain great unknowns—nature, the earth itself and our place in it—which comprise the very fabric of our deepest, darkest fears, and how trying to confront and even understand them can be a confusing and delirious endeavor. Like Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, Phil Elverum’s Clear Moon, even in its tranquil moments, is rumbling with a deep-seated uneasiness regarding the way man and nature exist, within and without each other.
Clear Moon is one entry in a series of similar Mount Eerie works: it’s loosely connected to previous effort Wind’s Poem, and companion piece to the forthcoming Ocean Roar. Phil Elverum isn’t really interested in making conventional records, and though clearly less abrasive than its black metal predecessor, Clear Moon is a difficult listen, thrashing when you want it to coast, stopping dead when you want it to climax. But to take issue with this record’s willful unevenness is to ignore the delicious sense of doom it creates, and the knots it casually ties itself into.
It starts out comfortably, anyway. “Through the Trees, Pt. 2” is an instantly engaging, melodic track that poses the record’s big questions in an accessible, self-effacing way. Over airy guitar and synth, Elverum ruminates on the difficulty of reconciling daily life with the hugeness of the world around us. “It’s hard to describe without seeming absurd,” he sings in his warm, everyman voice, later asking, “Can you find a wilderness in your body / And walk through the store after work / Holding it high?” The song glides on a beautiful, placid surface, but one can feel the disquiet as he sings of driving around watchfully, “Seeing no edge / Breathing sky.” This sensation grows in the following tracks, whose titles, “The Place Lives” and “The Place I Live,” directly speak to the conflict Clear Moon hinges on. Sonically, things become more and more disjointed, with startling synths, drums, and occasionally heavy guitars cutting in, and Allyson Foster’s ethereal vocal on “The Place I Live” further adds to the tension.
While the beginning of the record signifies a gradually creeping panic, the latter half feels at times dangerous and suffocating, with its imagery of dangling, insignificant, on a precipice. One can feel this with the burst of brass at the end of “Lone Bell,” followed by the impatient, cymbal-heavy tick of “House Shape,” which evokes a technologically challenged Radiohead. The strange and hymnlike “Over Dark Water” is the scariest, with its menacingly ambiguous “over” and its Bjork-tinged vocal performance from Geneviève Castrée. What could be an obvious metaphor becomes, in Elverum’s gentle grasp, thrillingly obscure.
But the title track is the album’s obvious climax, the thunderstorm that disturbs any remaining sense of peace. It’s a long dirge, with crashing cymbals and desperate drums. “Clear moon in a black sky,” Elverum repeats, turning a common nightly occurrence into something that seems terrifyingly wrong. “Clear Moon” is hard to sit through, but it’s clearly an important part of the record’s story, and works brilliantly paired with the delicate, pretty “Yawning Sky.” The latter may sound like a tranquil comedown after its predecessor’s bombast, but it actually hints at something much more sinister—just the sort of event that Curtis feared in Take Shelter: “A new storm / A new kind of roaring to tear through days.” Elverum’s sky isn’t merely yawning, it’s hungry, and it will swallow us whole.
Clear Moon is not the type of record to play easily and often, just like Take Shelter is not a film I’ll watch between chores on a Saturday. It’s an ambitious record, bursting with deftly rendered imagery and escalating paranoia. But it is this very resistance to ease and clarity that makes Clear Moon admirable: rather than attempting to find answers, Elverum just plunges more deeply into his central confusion, reveling in its infinite insolvability. The quality that can most recommend this record, then, despite the litany I’ve tossed out, is mystery. It’s a rare thing these days, but Elverum cultivates it effortlessly, and owns it in a way that will give you chills.