Contrary to his personal take on the matter, Phil Elverum is not the center of the universe. In fact, there are other people just like him, living their own lives, and inhabiting the very same earth on which he stands. To him, though–at least in song–it’s always been the same: him, Anacortes, Washington, the yawning sky above, and the spinning ground below. Occasionally other people stop by, but the complexities of their personalities–their very beings–are often reduced to Elverum’s purposefully naÃ¯ve conceptions of them: feeling someone’s shape, feeling someone’s size, but never getting much further into the depth of the vast universe that lies beneath skin and flesh, a universe in many ways equal in magnitude to the universe that always seems to keep him at its center. There’s enough in the impenetrable landscape around Elverum to keep him occupied for the rest of his natural life, without ever having to look inward.
With Clear Moon, Elverum’s first of two records this year, he looks to the night sky, trying to parse out the hazy language in clouds passing over, as he passes under, “standing in the parking lot squinting.” Elverum’s music, especially under the Mount Eerie moniker, has done little other than laboriously pore over his minute interactions with the natural world, through its many iterations: a flowing stream, a rock in the woods, bellowing wind, a smokestack filling the sky with a haze of black. His circular cogitations eschew science for core observations, stray thoughts that cut to the essence of human existence: the isolated reality of being a human, unable to truly understand or communicate with the Earth and its daunting mysteries. Science can try to explain these enigmas, but can it ever explain why they all exist, and why, despite all of the Earth’s beauty, we can still feel so completely alone?
For Elverum, a tree is a tree. But when a tree sways, it is saying something, something he will never understand. This mere fact, though, doesn’t stop him from an endless train of thought on the matter. Elverum has been surveying the complexity of the Earth with an almost Neanderthal level of simplicity for just over a decade. Each time, he takes us back to square one, to the beginning of time, where the simplest questions become the most complex, and important, of all. This time, it’s one as childlike as “Why is the sky?” Elverum searches for language in every cloud, every step along dirt-paths, every ridge, every branch. He turns language we hear and use everyday into some of the most powerful poetry he’s written yet, stripping away any clutter and reducing his thoughts to their frail cores. “Why. Is. The. Sky?”
Throughout Clear Moon, Elverum brings us face to face with these questions, his compositions mimicking the various forms the sky inhabits on a regular basis, all distilling Elverum’s various aesthetic preoccupations to a perfect blend of them all: black metal haze, onrate lo-fi, and frenetic folk headphone explosions. The percussion thunders and slithers around repetitive post-funk grooves on the awe-inspiring “Lone Bell”, easily one of the most disorienting things Dr. Phil has ever cooked up. Thunderous rhythms shake distortion between alternating acoustic strums on opener “Through the Trees pt. 2”. On “The Place I live”, squealing e-bow brings Elverum to the stark realization that if a cloud passes over him and he doesn’t look, it still passes over him and his home.
Elverum’s music is visual, the sound of a person falling backward into an abyss, reaching up at the night sky as the ground beneath swallows them whole. But instead of any answers, Elverum provides only new and different ways of visiting or approaching these vast mysteries, which may in fact be more useful than answers themselves. In the end, on “Yawning Sky” he arrives back where he started. The sky is an impenetrable, shape-shifting monster, greeting us like a blade in the morning, and yawning a haze of clouds as a clear moon glows above us. The stars align, in the form humming organs, and a clear moon is all we see. Elverum’s glow has never shined so bright.
Essential Tracks: “Through the Trees Pt. 2”, “The Place I Live”, “Lone Bell”, and “Yawning Sky”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.