(P.W. Elverum and Sun; 2008)
By Eric Sams | 12 November 2008
When Phil Elverum enunciates simply on this record’s title track, “Lost Wisdom / is a quiet echo,” I think he’s talking about actual lost wisdom and all the things that may be, not the second “official” Mount Eerie release—CDRs, singles, picture discs, and other people singing his songs notwithstanding—on his label, P.W. Elverum and Sun. This album is a quiet echo, but not nearly so boring and forceless as that description implies. An echo takes shape based on the sound that created it and the surface it bounces off of. Given the right mixture, even a quiet one can blow your hair back.
The echoes hurtling through the void seem to be something of a career-long theme for Elverum. In a CMG interview in 2005 he told Dom, “it’s my tendency to lean towards things..like a description of an empty space, or of a vessel.” One imagines Phil in an acoustic black hole, experimenting with different sounds and emotions, listening with eager attention to the sound of the echoes as they reach him. Here that sound is simple, unified, and unglamorous loneliness. The echo is louder for that, and when it rings back against the emptiness two distinct pitches are heard. There is the hampering, thrumming, exultant calm of solitude, and there is the terrifying solipsism of isolation. These are twin sides to an emotional state so thin and flimsy that, at times, you can feel both at once, like a stiff wind has folded one plane in on the other, and then the chaos is cacophonous. And silent.
These are the first words of the album: “I got close enough to the river that I couldn’t hear the roaring of the trucks / But not close enough to stop the roaring of my mind.” Then, having set up the dichotomy, Elverum elects to begin by depressing the shit out of us with his echo’s minor key: “These rocks don’t care if I live or die / Everyone I know will finally turn away / I will confuse and disinterest all posterity.” As I see these words on the page for the first time I realize that they sound like some maudlin shit out of their spare context, but Elverum delivers these laden lyrics with a calm, almost warm diction and tone, and Julie Doiron’s addition is a perfect tempering agent to what might otherwise be unpalatable gloom.
On nearly every song Elverum and Doiron braid their voices together with an intuitive melodicism worthy of their respective indie-icon statuess. Counter-melodies and pauses becoming as essential to the fever dream as whatever bruised voice or instrument is currently voicing the loosely strung notes hanging listless on the surface. It’s not a songwriting approach divorced from No Flashlight (2005) or the Microphones’ work, but Lost Wisdom does seem to be more at ease with the persistent undertow of its own beauty.
For instance, I’ve been told that I can find the emo in anything, but “You Swan Go On” is pretty unabashed with the time honored emo mixture of helpless love and graphic violence. For my money, it is the most interesting and disarmingly lovely song on Lost Wisdom because of that. Running just over a minute and a half, the track is essentially a boy/girl romantic metaphor ballad, no studio tricks, no complementary microphone fuzz, no booming drum ambush. Late album tracks “What?” and “O My Heart” are similar in both delicate beauty and theme; “O My Heart” features Elverum, after not recognizing his own disembodied heart, surprised by the size and shape of it—which, again, may seem melodramatic in a cold description, but Lost Wisdom insinuates itself by degrees. This album sinks in, each listen dry rubbing the quiescent hums and lulls into the brain like a dream half remembered.
On “With My Hands Out” Elverum finds catharsis in swimming across the ocean: “Though I am soaked, and I am cold, I will be clean.” His sense of relief on making this final declaration is both tentative and resolute. It’s a layered, nuanced line, and a good example of Wisdom‘s tone. If there is a soul at the center of this record it is the same tortured, insular spirit shuffling along the Business 15-501 on the Mountain Goats’ exquisite and excruciating Get Lonely (2006); again and again it’s the feeling of something gently laid bare, the quiet echo of a whispered utterance.