After reviewing the new Mount Eerie album, Sauna, last week and becoming nearly obsessed with the back catalog of main songwriter, Phil Elverum, I thought that this Monday Mixer could serve as a good introduction to the work of a talented musician with a paralyzingly vast body of work that unfortunately seems to slip under most people’s radar. So here is a mostly chronological guide through some of my favorite songs from one of my favorite artists. This list is hardly exhaustive due to the size of Phil’s catalog, but hopefully will excite you into delving deeper into the work of this complex and celebrated musician.
Note: Headphones are strongly recommended for the best experience.
1. Don’t Wake Me Up – “Where It’s Hotter Pt. 3”
In retrospect, it seems like Phil was still trying to find his voice on Don’t Wake Me Up. Both the structure of the album and the songwriting are more conventional than anything the Microphones would ever release again. Phil’s affinity for multi-part pop songs, drums and fuzzy drone come through on “Where It’s Hotter Pt. 3,” aspects to his music that will heavily influence his sound for many albums. “Where It’s Hotter Pt. 3” is a catchy song with a kickass, drum-heavy outro, a highlight on a solid album.
2. It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water – “The Pull”
The themes of water that are consistent throughout It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water are apparent almost immediately with opener “The Pull.” The way the multi-tracked guitar jumps from left to right speaker gives a flowing, pushing/pulling feeling which sounds like a musical approximation of ocean currents. The drums and fuzz come in late and absolutely explode from the peaceful acoustic soundscape that made up the beginning of the song. It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water was the first album that got The Microphones any attention. The production quality is top-notch and “The Glow,” an 11-minute psych-pop epic and album centerpiece, became retroactively known as the song that is the first part to an entire album.
3. The Glow Pt. 2 – “the Moon”
The Glow Pt. 2 is known as the crowning achievement of the Microphones. It sounds like a walk through vast landscapes – woods, mountains, storms, oceans – while Phil whispers his distinct naturalist philosophy. “the Moon” combines these two aspects perfectly. Phil quietly sings “We’re just floating in space over molten rock/And we felt safe and we discovered that our skin is soft/There’s nothing left except certain death/And that was comforting at night out under the moon” amidst billowing synths, heavy drums and horns, which combine to make the perfect companion song to a midnight stroll. The Glow Pt. 2 is probably the best place to start for anyone interested in listening to a lot of Elvereum’s work. If this playlist only whets your appetite, start here.
4. Mount Eerie – “Solar System”
The last album released as the Microphones is also their most ambitious. Named after the mountain outside Phil’s home of Anacortes, which Phil would use as a moniker for future releases, Mount Eerie is an album about death and all the beauty, sadness, mystery and curiosity that comes with it. “Solar System” is the most straight-forward song on the album, the rest is filled with tribal drums, chanting, Calvin Johnson as The Universe and other similarly trippy stuff. It’s a challenging and fascinating listen, but I’d only recommend listening to the rest if you are already a fan of Elverum’s music.
5. Seven New Songs – “Wooly Mammoth’s Absence”
Phil’s transition from The Microphones to Mount Eerie is less an evolution of sound so much as a change of focus in songwriting. Mount Eerie songs still sound like nature, but their focus is more personal and isolated. Around this time in his career, around 2002, Phil spent an extended amount of time isolated in a cabin in Norway. Spending most of the time writing, his songs became more introspective and more about spending time in solitude. He’s reworked the songs written in that time on several different albums, this song as well as the two songs from Dawn were all written around the same time, yet they all span different albums and different versions. This is my favorite version of “Wooly Mammoth’s Absence,” though I’m quite fond of the stripped down acoustic version on Dawn as well.
6. Lost Wisdom – “Lost Wisdom”
Lost Wisdom is a short album, but a gem, which features heavy collaborations with vocalist Julie Doiron and guitarist Fred Squire. The way the vocals intertwine with the sparse electric guitar makes Lost Wisdom an often beautiful album. The album opener and title track juxtaposes beautiful, personal and melancholy lyrics with Phil’s existentialisms. “These rocks don’t care if I live or die/ everyone I know will finally turn away,” they sing with a powerful melancholy, a testament to the emotive phrasing Phil is capable of in both his lyrics and his music.
7. Dawn – “I Say ‘No’”
The stripped down, straight-forward acoustic aesthetic of Dawn makes it one of my favorite of Phil’s releases. The relatively small amount of production on the album brings the songwriting into full focus and under the scrutiny it shines. “I Say ‘No’” is a beautiful song about why death is ok and shouldn’t be feared. Elverum urges us to “find life where you foolishly saw graves” and to “shed whatever husk if you are ripe.” It’s a concise and comforting statement, capped off with a powerful ending that leaves you hanging in complete silence, waiting anxiously for the next movement.
8. Dawn – “Moon (Sequel)”
I’m cheating a bit with this one by including two songs from Dawn, but I’d like to demonstrate within this playlist Phil’s tendency for self reference. Part 2’s and 3’s appear throughout Elverum’s work and often we won’t hear the other parts until the release of some inevitable rarities and B-sides collection that he is so fond of. “Moon (Sequel)” is a companion to “the Moon” from The Glow Pt. 2, stealing the guitar and vocal melodies from that song. Doing away with the synths and horns, Phil details a breakup, probably the same one discussed on “the Moon,” with the heartbreak displayed heavily on his sleeve. It’s powerfully emotional and a testament to Phil’s ability to rework old motifs for new purposes with widely different results.
9. Ocean Roar – “Ocean Roar”
Going out of chronological order for this one, but it hardly matters given that Ocean Roar and Clear Moon are two albums borne out of the same sessions and released within a few months of each other. Ocean Roar is heavily drone-centered, filled with dark synths and organs which often threaten to swallow the listener whole. The title track is one of the moments where Elverum comes up for air. A beautiful and serene ballad conjuring images of peaceful seas, “Ocean Roar” displays some shoegaze influences in the floating vocals and shimmering guitars. It’s a quiet moment tucked in a vast soundscape that makes for quite an affecting song.
10. Clear Moon – “Through the Trees Pt. 2”
Clear Moon was a return to form for Mount Eerie, sounding half like a long lost Microphones recording and half like the drone-heavy albums that would follow. “Through the Trees Pt. 2” is one of the songs that gets closest to his classic sound. Acoustic guitars surging from left to right and soft vocals with lyrics invoking natural imagery are classic staples in Elverum’s songwriting and just as present as ever here. The line “I go on describing this place/and the way it feels to live and die” reads like a mission statement for all the music Elverum has written up to this point, a summary of a great body of work that continues to expand to this day.