Mount Eerie’s dance with the intractable
Mike Donovan | Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Phil Elverum takes the stage clad in a simple white t-shirt and loose-fitting chinos. A dead pine rots — in the most comforting way — by his side. He begins playing guitar, the tones of which lacerate the audience, segmenting their collective consciousness into a smattering of individual reactions. Each person, now alone in the populated room, has no choice but to wander into Elverum’s fragmentary discourse and navigate death, grief and memory’s maze of intractable barriers. It’s a “new one,” Elverum tells us. “Distortion.”
“Distortion” and “Now Only,” the album from which it springs, mimic the consonance of love and death without descending into the cliches of the love letter. As Elverum purports on “Now Only’s” predecessor, “A Crow Looked at Me,” “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art.”
Thus, Elverum bypasses the romantic’s listless vignettes of love and death, and dutifully interprets the excruciating loss of his wife, Genevieve Castree, as directly as the subject matter allows.
Roland Barthes, semiotician and author of author of “A Lover’s Discourse,” elucidates Elverum’s position as a man both in love and at a loss — “Everything follows from this principle: that the lover is not to be reduced to a symptomal subject, but rather that we hear his voice in what is ‘unreal,’ i.e., intractable.” The lover must then reconcile this notion of “the unreal” with that of the real, embodied in death. “Now Only” marries love’s persistent, ineffable glimmers to the imminent pain of death to lead listeners into a discourse that, according to Barthes, is not in any way “dialectic” and steeped in “an extreme solitude.”
As Elverum’s perception of his wife’s passing fades from immediacy to “some untrustworthy old description in my memories,” he becomes less in tune with her tactile qualities. The tactile sensations at the point of tragedy, which told him — “Oh, my devastation is unique” — have since receded into memories such that only his perception of the “unreal” — namely the layers of love that existed between he and his lost wife remain. Sadly, this love, by nature, must persist unrequited. Of memories, Elverum concedes, “That must be your ghost taking form.” He doesn’t believe in ghosts.
Genevieve’s “unreal” qualities, unlike the physical attributes of her cancer and death, lend themselves to the language of art. But they will not fit kindly within a capacious elegy. Barthes might say her death released a wave of lacerations, that shattered the psyche of her lover. His recovery, consequently, occurs in roughly intelligible fragments.
Elverum, a devotee of the truth, presents these fragments unfettered. His lyrical mannerisms stumble over his lukewarm acoustic set pieces in much the same way that Coltrane wove complex melodies like “sheets of sounds” over the meddling of his quartets. Stark and angular, certain phrasings — “You don’t even have a dead body anymore, it was taken away / I went and wrote a check” — wedge themselves at a near perpendicular angle to the vaguely melodic drones that, on occasion, broach pop’s territory. The angles construct a trestle — the framework around which Elverum communicates the intractable reaches of his inner life.
Elverum’s process of verbalizing death’s untidy sting, when pushed to the end of its line, drifts like a group of sad people “eating fruit and jumping on the bed like lost children / Exploding across the earth in a self-indulgent all-consuming / Wreck of ideas that blot out the stars.”
Absurdity, tragedy’s trusted friend, appears when meaning goes on hiatus, gripping the words and their listener with a comically direct parlance: “People get cancer and die / People get hit by trucks and die / People just living their lives get erased for no reason / With the rest of us averting our eyes” — over a jaunty melodic ditty.
Our eyes look away, but our ears listen. Sounds in-between the cracks — white noise, missed strings, vocal mishaps, errant drums — punctate hopeless attempts at lyricized meaning. The sounds function as colons, dashes, commas and parentheses — assigning order to a fragmentary mind. Again, we see trestles: architectural orations to the sounds of death’s waltz with memory.
The poet Natasha Trethewey — no stranger to death’s glare herself — contextualizes her fragmentary heritage: “Bring only what you must carry — tome of memory, / its random blank pages.” Elverum’s “A Crow Looked at Me” brought it all, every heart-splitting parcel. “Now Only,” a year on, packs lighter, though the burden is still too heavy for flight.
Artist: Mount Eerie
Album: “Now Only”
Label: P.W. Elverum and Sun
Favorite Tracks: “Distortion”
If you like: The Microphones, Songs: Ohia, The Music Tapes
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5