Phil Elverum has always been relatively nomadic in terms of his aesthetic scope, fluently shifting from soft-spoken acoustic strummer to gut-wrenching feedback maestro. Over the course of 13 years, he’s done so without hesitation; as if inhabiting a universe where, in lieu of any truly rational rationale, that sort of lack of direction makes perfect sense. Why simply parcel out the finer, more agreeable sounds, when one might otherwise be capable of authentically capturing their position along a vaster spectrum?
With album-centric cohesion and determination, Phil Elverum perpetually mimics the disorder and order that surrounds him, exhaling his individual tranquility whenever there’s adequate space to do so. He continually presents us with his own human condition: a pure soul fruitfully navigating a sea of senselessness. On Ocean Roar, Elverum’s second official LP of 2012 as Mount Eerie and follow-up to Clear Moon, his ongoing presentation resonates as acutely as anything he’s crafted up to this point.
Elverum’s scrappy case study of oft-turbulent waters brings us face to face with Mount Eerie’s grand statement: the variable inability to maintain calm, remain focused, or even really matter much at all, in a world of chaos, natural or unnatural. Elverum is an expert on the study of the celestial space in which our deepest fears, our fleeting emotions, and our collective determination to push forward, inhabit. He knows that it’s difficult to be much of anything, to mean much of anything, to step back and take a few breaths, while waves of noise and uncertainty constantly smash against the shores of our minds and bodies. How can we swim against, or along with, all of these inharmonious currents? Shootings in movie theaters, watching a sunset with a loved one, the earth quaking an entire country: Elverum captures a collective sense of fear, anxiety, and even respite from that anxiety, at once cathartically spewing vicious static and coolly humming as he collects himself in its wake.
The method with which Elverum captures and articulates these feelings is what makes his work so powerful–literally inserting his calm demeanor, his pleasant croon, in between insurmountable, impenetrable volume. While threading crass, distorted melody through walls of feedback and thunderous rhythms, Elverum nudges his way through his own sonic insanity with whispered observations on the ocean’s arbitrary dissension; stray moments of serenity emerging in flickers of pale lights vaguely seen in the foggy distance. Elverum fills a void to the brim, then trudges through it cautiously.
Look no further than the record’s epic opener, “Pale Lights”, where Elverum turns to his infatuation with black metal and crafts one of his most piercing journeys to the end of his abilities to juxtapose. After nearly three minutes of dense, Burzum-indebted instrumental melodic anti-melody, Elverum literally turns the knob down on the bombast, collecting his thoughts in a pleading hymn atop the muted anarchy. “Who is there?” he questions, staring off into the soft, hazy smudges of “island shapes” in the distance. Then the silenced backtrack flourishes in with more force, highlighting its own harsh fog with Steve Reich-esque pulses leaking out through resonating tones of feedback. Unlike the pure crass energy of most hardcore music speckled with hints of melody or bright tones, Elverum somehow creates a world in which he can orchestrate chaos while simultaneously distancing himself from it, his gentleness both peripheral and central to it all. He’s standing in the eye of a hurricane he himself creates, trying to calm it back to sleep.
“Waves” works in a similar fashion, with Elverum speaking to a perfect storm as it swallows him whole. “I Walked Home Beholding” is a more serene look into the beauty of disorder. Elverum walks home from the studio on a barren winter night, able to take the emptiness in, watching “people across the water slowly living all their lives” through lit windows. The song, in contrast with its Popol Vuh-nodding predecessor and the instrumental ambush that follows, further reveals Elverum’s uncanny ability to craft and capture chaos just as well as he can beauty.
Elverum’s attempts to ground himself to somewhere or something in a haze of uncertainty and fear are what drive these sonic studies home. The alignment of his aesthetic and thematic visions colors unpleasant sounds with beauty, making the case for why beauty should never be ignored, no matter how horrifying its outward manifestation. If you hated noise rock up until this point, you might find that Elverum can sway you. Like a more digestible, more focused take on the same sort of obsessive exhibitionism displayed on Swans’ The Seer, Elverum is shoving it in our faces ad nauseam.
As he does so, he allows us to focus on things we might otherwise turn away from. Elverum takes the space of Ocean Roar‘s 40 minutes to perfectly capture how it feels to be Phil Elverum, to live inside his head, as it looks out into the ocean’s horizon. Seeing through his eyes is an endlessly thought-provoking privilege. If you eschewed ugliness up until now, you might even look at the world a little differently. And who can ask for more from art than to open our apprehensive minds?
Essential Tracks: “Pale Lights”, “Waves”, and “I Walked Home Beholding”