(P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2009)
By Dom Sinacola | 24 September 2009
Despite its intuitive, thematic clarity, its inherent and even pace, how fundamentally rewarding it can be given patience and an insider’s almost-profligate trust with one Phil Elvrum, Wind’s Poem is a perplexing piece of work. What could, at first listen, be called the rightful follow-up to No Flashlight (2005), which was a similarly stark and singular meditation best revered by audiophiles and picked apart for heady aspirations than actually enjoyed, is surprisingly way more fun. If anyone remembers the absolute density of the ideas No Flashlight proselytized (and that’s exactly how I’d describe its approach to a listener), then that same anyone will, with refreshing sigh, require no wall-sized, hand-scribed libretto to understand this new LP. This is a poem, and thus a suite of songs, dedicated to the wind, sounding like the wind. Thank god for this transparent intent. I for one take it personally when any explication I attempt out of love for the permutations of Elv(e)rum is met with a slap on the wrist as if the intimacy I’m sure Elvrum intends with his fans—how could he not, what with his singing barely above a whisper, and with those alluring asexual sweaters?—is misguided. So I won’t tempt the sublime beauty of this album by trying to translate it; won’t do that and then resent how I found my way through it because I’m simply not right about it.
But what I will do is complicate a nascent enjoyment of Wind’s Poem by calling Elvrum to task for how literally he’s engineered it. What he’s essentially crafted is, by no means a spectacle given any other limb in the Mount Eerie/Microphones canon, a huge, tactile space within a carefully restrained stereo mix. And yet, what he’s dedicated to now, moreso than ever, is shrinking himself, the already milquetoast protagonist, to a point of complete helplessness. No one casually listens to Elvrum—his vocals are immediate but illusory, sirens of melody and structure perched atop crags jutting out of a vast tabletop of blue-gray sound. No one can or should expect anything straightforward from him; but suddenly, or seemingly so, there aren’t even signposts, illusory or not, available: the furious reverb and guitars balled up in dense, woolen nimbus are the sole reasons for tracks like racking opener “Wind’s Dark Poem” or “The Hidden Stone,” elemental maws that can’t help but swallow the singer, him going down fightless, no errant Frosted Flake he. His vocals are mixed stubbornly low, even in the tracks where “black metal,” or whatever’s he referring to it as, lets up, breathes and sleepy organs or heartbreaking marimbas flush in. There is no crag or outcrop in these tracks, there’s only the ferocious distance of water with him and his stentorian language muffled harshly, somewhere, below. Even a seasoned fan of Phil must resist the lust to claw, falconer gloved, through the dark might he’s mortared between his insistence upon “correct” listening and just how possible that is.
So here’s where the perplexing part comes in: for an artist so conceivably beholden to his bloated concepts—a guy who, it can be said, only writes concept albums, even if the concept is aesthetic and the songs recycled; concepts only “bloated” because there is nothing thin to the mythos in that man’s woody head—there is no apparent way to the heart of Wind’s Poem. Sometimes this feels like a shame; sometimes what Elvrum’s given us is discouragingly beautiful, measured and focused in all the ways I’ve berated him for losing track of in the past, and sometimes what he performs is rapacious, an exciting turn for Mount Eerie. But between this whispering for intimacy and this violent bombing of anything intimate the listener is tousled, given only vague cues for where to settle. Not a big deal if Elvrum weren’t such a publicized stickler for all his “dark night”s and “cold wind”s and assorted elemental metaphors.
To his credit, for the first time Elvrum is reaching for something other than “Phil Elvrum,” if only because it’s called “black metal,” which isn’t meant to be a confusing way to describe an album I’ve already described as confusing; what I mean is that much has been spilled about what black metal could even be in the wraithlike grip of Mount Eerie, but much has been avoided as far as congratulating Elvrum on writing something that absolutely needs no explanation, whose power is maybe even mitigated by explication. The dichotomy at hand is mostly obvious, silence greeting the void between hard, warring wails (or, in a particularly inspired moment, strangely digitalized mania via “(something),” which scares everything The Glow Pt. 2 (2001) may have intended into dust) and oneiric, concave passages sweeping in their quiet grandeur, a synthesis Elvrum’s never truly realized before that now seems second nature—but the dichotomy is accessible. Madness relinquishes its grip as quickly as it takes hold; chaos diffuses as thoroughly as calm congeals. Or, in the case of both “Lost Wisdom Pt. 2” and the revelation that is closer “Stone’s Ode,” the insufferable magnanimity of cymbals and sinister, coital strumming gives way to, or is breached by, a steady tunefulness. “Stone’s Ode” quotes, fully, Norwegian black metal/ambient/jailbird “star” Burzum’s “Dunkelheit” and is able to wrench intonations of decay and impending mortality into something reassuring, something conclusive. Something.
Because we don’t need Elvrum to teach us that what is behind Wind’s Poem is a mistrust of permanence, that, from “Summons,” when you “hold onto something” you’ll only “watch it go”: “Everything you love / Will end up on the breeze.” It’s not hard to hear the pulsing, subconscious bass at the base of “Summons” a song later puncture every register for “the Mouth of Sky” and then sink and buttress a wonderful harmony one song further against the beestinging guitar of “Between Two Mysteries”; Elvrum is not coy with his building and successive destruction. He isn’t all that quiet about the two worlds he’s pitching into the night. There’s just that ever-present brain-tickle that affirms: You’re wrong, listener. You’re wrong. And so the distance that keeps Elvrum’s tiny voice from ever rising above a negligible squeak is applied to our relationship with this pretty, roaring Wind’s Poem. It’s a harrowing problem, like getting stuck between a stone and a hard something, for every Phil Elvrum fan imaginable. And who isn’t nowadays.