The Microphones are one of my favorite bands to come along in the last five years. When I first heard their 1999 debut Don't Wake Me Up, I fell in love. It sounded like a hybrid of the intimate low-fidelity grunge of Eric's Trip and the syrupy ambient soundtracks of Brian Eno. Over the course of three proper albums and two
singles-and-oddities collections, Microphones auteur Phil Elvrum quickly became one of my artistic heroes. He's far from the best singer or musician; as a producer, though, he pushes the limits of analog home recording; as a writer, he has a knack for evocative lyrics and indelible melodies; as an arranger, he is deeply acquainted with the element of surprise; and unlike most one-man bands, he is not afraid to let his talented friends assist him every once in a while.
Obviously, I'm biased towards anything that Elvrum releases, so in the name of objectivity, I'm going to give you all a couple of warnings about his latest masterpiece, Mount Eerie. It's not the best album for first-time listeners to get acquainted with. First of all, whereas previous albums shoe-horned Elvrum's whims into three-minute pop songs, this album is a forty-one-minute concept album discursive enough to make its track indexes seem arbitrary. There are no verses, bridges, or choruses--only tangents. Second of all, the album can be an uncomfortable listen. There are moments in which everything is horribly out of tune, even by the Microphones' standards, and there are frequent and jarring dynamic shifts that will scare the wits out of you if you're not prepared. However, if you're adventurous enough to handle it---or if you're already a Microphones fan to begin with---Mount Eerie will be nothing short of a revelation.
The album begins with the same field recording of a tugboat that closed the Microphones' previous album, 2001's The Glow, Pt. 2, confirming Elvrum's assertion that his first three proper albums formed a thematic trilogy about the elements. If Don't Wake Me Up, 2000's It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, and The Glow focused (respectively) on air, water, and fire, then this album combines these albums' tangents and adds a fourth element---the earth itself---in order to give the listener a more total view of the power of nature. Frankly, if I worshipped Mother Nature instead of Jesus Christ, the Microphones would be my gospel music.
Three minutes into opening track "The Sun," a series of sub-audible clicks and pops emerges out of the field recordings, forming a minimalist backbeat that suggests that Elvrum heard a few Bernard Gunter pieces during the recording process. Real drums slowly enter the mix, run through innumerable dropouts and dub-style echo effects. At the five-minute mark, the song explodes into a calypso drum circle, with a quiet undercurrent of keyboards hovering under it. The drums fade out a couple of times, only to reappear whenever a trumpet blares. At one point, you can hear the sounds of people chanting and hollering along. Listening to this, I can envision animals calling each other from atop the mountain as a primitive tribe does celebratory dances in the valley below. Phil's voice doesn't appear until more than halfway through the seventeen-minute opus, but it doesn't need to, for the music that comes before it is vivid enough to stand on its own.
Once Phil finally starts singing, he delivers a nervous first-person narrative: "See me waving my handkerchief on the shore/See my arm raised high/See that ship sail off with its sails aloft/See me dry my eyes and/See more salty tears flow as my house is blown wide." Almost every line begins with the word "see," which makes the lyrics seem slightly infantile on paper, but the music gives the lyrics added depth by imitating them with stunning accuracy. Phil's voice is miked so closely that you can hear not only the cracks in his voice, but also the breaths he takes in between words. His clipped, tentative singing wanders in and out of tune, and he chokes on his own words as if he is completely possessed by fear. The sun is described as a "ball of fire" that watches him as he flees from death up the mountain. A chorus of spooky voices fades in and out behind Phil, and his words are occasionally interrupted by jagged shards of white noise. The guitars are digitally whittled down to tiny bits, tracing the barest outline of a chord progression, an outline that is slowly fleshed out by outbursts of fuzz bass, dulcimers, and trumpets. Towards the end of the song, Phil confronts and is then submerged by the "ball of fire." The hum of a multitude of amplifiers creeps up behind him, eventually erupting into a climax of feedback and distorted drums. Phil's voice is eclipsed by the instruments as "The Sun" draws to a close.
The hiss gradually morphs into running streams of water, ushering in the album's second track, "Solar System." A backdrop of acoustic guitar and soft percussion emerges from the water as Phil resumes singing: "The fireball has rolled away in shaded valleys/so here I am in the creek bed." He observes the decaying landscape around him, reminisces about a girl he left behind in order to escape death, and begins wishing for nature to slowly overtake him. A group of pretty female voices swells behind him as he calls out to his estranged beau: "I know you're out there..." "Solar System" is the closest that Mount Eerie comes to having a standard "song," and its fadeout brings side one of the album to a relaxing close.
Side two begins with one of two tracks titled "The Universe." In this track, a reprise of "Solar System" slowly gives way to a cacophony of distorted percussion. The arrival of nighttime is announced by a series of intricate drum rolls and an angry fuzz bass riff. Phil then reappears with his acoustic guitar to resume the narrative. The appearance of the night sky forces him to confront his own loneliness. It seems that the universe itself doesn't even want to be bothered with him. Personified by the baritone voice of K Records head honcho Calvin Johnson, the universe asks the narrator one simple, dismissive question: "What do you want?" As the surrounding voices and instruments surge into one crescendo after another, Phil finds himself unable to respond. Instead, he asks himself more questions: "How many times have I learned this before? How many times have I made up this song before? How many times have I died up here before?" The song ends with almost two minutes' worth of sustained vocal harmonies, which serve as a bridge between the first "Universe" and the album's title track.
The song "Mount Eerie" can be divided into three distinct parts, and rightfully so, since each of these parts was written and recorded by different people. In the first part, Phil stands at the top of the mountain, describing his surroundings to the very last detail as synthesizers drone behind him. The background vocalists reappear, chanting louder and louder to warn him of the inevitable: "So your big black cloud will come/and press you to the ground/the air will leave your chest/you'll fade from where you're found." At around the two-minute mark, a loud, swooping breath consumes the song, ushering in a Timbaland-style beat. In this second part of the song "Big Black Death," a character played by label mate Kyle Field of Little Wings, introduces himself. You wouldn't expect the grim reaper's arrival to be the funniest and most danceable moment of a rock album, but as you already know, the Microphones aren't your average rock band. It is to Elvrum's credit that as melancholy as Mount Eerie gets, he never lets the music sink completely into a black hole. Kyle sing-speaks his words in an almost rap-like fashion as the background vocalists melodramatically gulp and shriek. Karl Blau, Phil's own artistic mentor (and collaborator in the far inferior band D+), does the third part of the song. During this quiet, acoustic waltz, Karl sings from the perspective of the birds that pick apart the narrator's dead body. As the birds keep eating, the instruments are slowly drowned in tape hiss. As the narrator's body decays, so does the music, yet another example of the arrangements brilliantly bringing the lyrics to life.
The final track, also titled "The Universe," finds our narrator in the afterlife, discovering that death has made him one with the universe that, until this point, frightened and rejected him. The song starts out a capella, but a plodding procession of tom-toms, wordless voices, and Appalachian horns trails behind him. The last few minutes of the song sound like an African drum circle backing a troupe of chanting Gregorian monks, a sound as vast and expansive as the Grand Canyon itself.
All but the most hardened listeners will feel completely drained and
overwhelmed once this album ends. It's not the kind of album that will make most people press the "repeat" button immediately after hearing it, simply because it takes a bit of getting used to. I wasn't even sure that I liked it until two or three deep listens. I had to put it away, let it sit on my desk for a week or two, and then go back to it when I was in the right frame of mind. Now, of course, I regard Mount Eerie as indispensable. I don't want to kill my credibility with hyperbole, but I can safely say that I've never heard anything like Mount Eerie in my life. Lyrically, it confronts issues of mortality without resorting to cliches or self-pity, and musically, it embodies the unpredictability and volatility of nature itself. Frankly, after hearing an album like this, much of what I've heard since seems comparatively un-ambitious and devoid of emotion. Mount Eerie is a near-perfect symbiosis of words and music that restores a bit of dignity to the usually laughable concept of the "rock opera." After making music this unhinged, I am completely befuddled as to where Phil Elvrum could possibly go next without either artistically regressing or completely losing his mind.