(P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2005)
By Dom Sinacola | 27 November 2007
Before the massive, record-breaking packaging hits stores, before you clear out the furniture from your dining room in order to lay No Flashlight’s art out fully, before Elv(e)rum has a chance to offer a song-by-song explanation of his first full LP under his M(oun)t(.) Eerie moniker, before the explanations become more confounding than the scribbled cairn lyrics themselves, and before you check to see if the eponymous rock formation actually exists, just slow down a sec. Take a breath. Keep things simple, otherwise all that speculatin’ and adrenalin’ will pull you right outta Phil’s dumbly smiling hyena skeleton of an album. Allow me to shoulder some critical theory weight, because before you unwrap his unassuming thesis, I can tell you, I think I got this dude figured out. He’s dying for us to figure him out.
I haven’t had the chance to read Phil’s 6’x5’ descrambling of Mount Eerie’s ars poetica but I have stared at the cover photo and all other photos ushering the release of the, erm, debut. They’re mighty pretty, for sure, and it’s occurred to me that the guy has a knack for being present during some simply beautiful moments in the Northwest. I don’t believe they’re doctored (wouldn’t be right). I just don’t think I’d have the patience to wait around for an abnormal sunset like he can.
Patience has never really been an issue when listening to Phil Elvrum (OK, maybe with live shows). And OK, maybe with a hefty smattering of the releases surrounding his landmark albums. But for The Glow Pt. 2 (2001), for It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water (2000), the Microphones conjured some extreme terrain from household means. In the shadow of a new monolith—the microphone knocked over too easily to lend the focus to a more natural symbol—it’s true that Mount Eerie hasn’t abandoned all of the former band’s staples. “The Moan” is all analog spite, a howling maw frothing with a teethful of electric guitars. And then there’s “the Universe is Shown” which should surprise even the most cynical anti-PW-ite with crazy bottle percussion and hell’s trombones. And then there’s a fat chorus, like Mount Eerie(2003) but immediate; a call and answer with the forces of nature but more demanding. The two tracks stand out from No Flashlight like the best squalls from the Microphones in their most furious moments.
Only, something’s off. Elvrum’s dueled with giant concepts before: air and water and the journey of death, etc. He’s knocked about the lines of a DIY duty. Under Mount Eerie, though, he seems to really want you to get a grasp of what he’s spouting. It’s over from the beginning; he sings in “I Know No One,” over something like an accordion dying, over something like the patriarch of a bass drum family drowning: “Knowing no one will understand these songs / I try to sing them clearer / Even though no one has ever asked / ‘What does Mt. Eerie mean?’” Seriously, he sounds a bit desperate, tears at the edge of his tiny salvo: “I try to repeatedly explain / In complicated song / But tonight, we will find out / I know No One and No One knows me.”
Why capitalize “No One” without actually reading the lyrics? Allow me this indulgence.
There’s a subtitle to No Flashlight. It’s “Songs of the Fulfilled Night.” The night has something to give. But let’s assume when he starts out addressing “you” he’s talking to a character, Mount Eerie the looming, regal character. In “The Moan” Phil says, “I know No One, and I hold Nothing, now that I know you.” This is peculiar, because you’d think being that surrendered to a natural piece of this world, the mist at the top and the sunset behind, or the flatness around it, would be anything other than “Nothing.” That is, until No’s parenthetical tracks meditate over 2 lakes, 2 mountains and 2 moons, aesthetically identical and governed by the same natural laws, but separated in society’s consciousness and in their availability to human activity. He gives us Lake and No Lake, Mountain and No Mountain, the Moon reflected safely in a bucket of water and the Actual Moon, the No Moon.
Alright, alright. “No One” is someone in respect to a “One” and “Nothing” is something in respect to some Thing. Take “No Inside, No Out”: As the world darkens to the soundtrack of staccato bass and more hard, wooden snare, Elvrum states, “Because the pupil of my eye is a hole / There’s no Inside and there’s no Out / The world is in me and I am in the world.” His mouth is another hole, “Because my teeth are the visible bones / In my mouth of invisible songs / The cave in night is overflowing.” So, the concepts of “inside” and “outside” are dependent on one another; like, “I can only love these dark hills because I live in the day”; like everything is connected and the Ying and Yang are our feeble ways of dealing with reality. We can only understand the Yes in terms of the No. It isn’t that 2 lakes really exist —- one popular and one pristine —- but that our idea of the lake is divorced from a true sense of a, um, Lake. And so we construct a No Lake to be ignored, to give weight to a —- oh boy! —- Lake.
I know you’re thinking this is just Plato hooey. Lamenting weak human constructions through mumbo jumbo. Mixing up capitalizations.
Anyway, Elvrum goes on. His eyes, his mouth open, they’re links between “worlds.” He calls them caves. (Last quote, from the second “No Flashlight,” separated from its younger twin by pastoral noise and a stronger acoustic melody):
No Flashlight means there’s
another world and it’s inside this one…
And No Flashlight means the lake at night
A cave, for Phil, is somewhere the night is proven to exist, eliminating the lines and details that keep 2s distinct. Inside doesn’t lead to Out, or vice versa, but taken together by means of a “hole,” follow to the night. And the night is pregnant with song. No Flashlight is not so much about creating earthly music as channeling it, realizing the presence of caves and drawing out songs from the dark. It’s like music is the language between language, trying to find a space between or above words and “reality” in order to reach a blanketing unity. Whatever that may be. Very idealistic for the kind of bedraggled schmuck you’ll get in an art gallery asking everyone to sit down.
The album’s arrangements are as thematically monotone as the raw lyrics, building rock beds for Elvrum’s unpredictable, but dangerously uniform, vocal melodies. Rags of piano chords pepper “In the Bat’s Mouth’s” distortion. Rags of Khaela Maricich and cymbals and an amateur gospel choir cut up “How?” He’s working towards grandiosity, but all the woodblocks and tribal rhythms and scraps sound unfinished, downright passive. Hmmm; pregnant, really. The whole is lulling, dainty and entrancing like (a fan’s) love, even if it is a tricky and plaintive way to yank the listener in.
What does Mount Eerie mean? The thing isn’t actually a mountain; Phil is. Or, he at least wants to see himself as mountainous, impervious to how everything will eventually fall apart. Then he “know[s] you” and can separate—(OK, truly the last quote, from “What I Actually Am,” ha!, “As you can see / Through mountain wind / what I actually am / Is thinning clouds”)—his image as God of Small Indie from meager human wisp, and can better understand one in respect to the other.
Digging through furious semantics, blistered by huge percussion and an endless helping of reverb, No Flashlight doesn’t sound much like a lullaby worth revisiting each night. Amazingly, Mount Eerie still crafts a series of passages that breathes, and walks, and enjoys a generous restraint. Because of that, No Flashlight feels fatter than its music and it’s wall-sized packaging, closer to a quiet and pouting testament from an artist who’s confused his fans with rarities and transformations for years. Patience, he tells us. It’s devastating, if you can stomach all that.