Phil Elvrum now believes that his last three albums as the Microphones—Don't Wake Me Up, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, and The Glow, pt. 2—were subconsciously (and respectively) about the elemental forces of Air, Water, and Fire. The Microphones' 2003 K Records release, Mount Eerie, represents his attempt to complete this epic cycle with an album "more consciously about mountains and earth, though it turned out to be more about space."
It has been said (and I have previously quoted) that "Everything Phil Elvrum creates just...radiates humanity." In fact, the existence of Mount Eerie makes this statement a prophecy. Phil Elvrum's latest endeavor becomes an attempt to follow the arc of human life through each of its stages: birth, life, death, rebirth. Mount Eerie is self-consciously a concept album in the most possibly overwrought and Wakeman-ian sense of the term, with a cast of characters narrated by an impressive array of musicians and a plot communicated through lyrical poetry1. Elvrum's exploration of Earth becomes a narration of life on—and beyond—Earth.
Mount Eerie is about concealment, illusion, the Buddhist Maya. Even its art direction seems to recognize this: with the case closed, only "OUNT ERIE" can be read as the album's title, and all the liner notes are crafted out of translucent tracing paper. Mount Eerie is also about revelation, and enlightenment: realization that all is transparent.
But let us return from those astral realms of interpretation to the terra firma of exposition. The Microphones is the alias of Phil Elvrum, Pacific Northwest lo-fi songsmith extraordinaire, and Mt. Erie(note one dropped 'e') is the 1300 foot tall mountain that looms over his beloved hometown of Anacortes, Washington. In Mount Eerie the peak is mythologized, stretched into the heavens as a metaphor for the journey of life itself. In a five-part symphony, Elvrum and co. present a pageant of human experience that meditates upon the morose without sinking into depression and ultimately exults in life, culminating with an optimistically infinite message.
""`-. SOLAR SYSTEM
| . o @ . 0 O O o .
I. THE SUN
Mount Eerie begins with the same far-off foghorns and heartbeats that closed The Glow, Pt. 2. Appropriately enough for a concept album about life and death, Eerie's 17 minute opener, The Sun, sounds like life inside the womb. The heartbeat morphs slowly into a swirling avalanche of echoing drumbeats that becomes a primeval tribal rhythm2. The listener can nearly see bonfires, shields, spears, heads upon pikes, as ominous groans of horn pierce the silence, which in its own time pierces the beat. The sound of children playing clashes with the Pagan beat as a mournful foghorn drowns beneath primal seas. The Microphones are a boat sailing to the Heart of Darkness, sailing over troubled seas. Phil Elvrum's voice breaks in, lonesome and broken and desolate, accompanied by dangerous glitches. "See me reach up, see me touch my neck, see my fingers recoil, see the life come back into my body." The frightening awareness of death. A black ship under red sail approaches him, its theme creaking, "scary trumpets." Elvrum flees up the slope of the mountain. Deafening static rises, rises, subsuming all...
II. SOLAR SYSTEM
Strummed guitar, melodious voice. A rest in a valley: "What stream used to flow here, and now what dusty decay?" Flash floods, quicksand, and solar wind. Elvrum dreamily contemnplates vultures, death, and a girl playing with a soccer ball, a planet, a metaphor for our orbiting, tethered lives. "Don't let gravity win, blow on me solar wind." A pastoral yet unnerving scene.
Return. Nightfall, junkyard rattling of bones and cans. Growl of heavy gravity. The close dark feminine voice, spine-tingling: "Do you - really - think - there's anybody out there? Mmmm hmmm..." The Universe, the massive voice of God: "What do you want?" "I see summits buried in more air," cries Elvrum. Farther, longer still to go? Higher. Reply. "There's no end." "How many times have I learned this before... how many times have I died up here before?"
IV. MOUNT EERIE
Death. Precipice Carolers sing a hymnal of warning: "Soon a big black cloud will come, press you to the ground, the air will leave your chest, you'll fade from where you're found, when you're finally stand still, your fingers all grow numb, get higher on your hill." Death himself catches up, his rattling roar, tragicomic gasps and exhalations of crippling, sapping breath. "Do you see what happens when I peel away your bark, make your blue sky darl?" Birds: "We feast. We invite each bite into our flight." Tibetan Sky Burial. Wind static. Desolation.
Communion with eternity. "Universe, I see your face in deadest night. And you see mine. Universe I see your face looks just like mine: we are open wide!" All is one, a plateau of stretching out into the light of infinite time, infinite lives.
Editor's note: here follows a recreation of Mount Eerie's liner notes.
* * *
(Go from the bottom up)
IN WHICH, invisible, you realize there's a mountain above the one you've just walked up. Also, the "Universe" painting you'd gazed at before turns out to be a lot bigger than you thought, and 3-D.
With John Kliese on the voice and Phil Elvrum on the Swiss Alpenhorn.
"Now that I have disappeared I have my sight. Beautiful wide black, you are unveiled. Now you are mine and I am in you. Now I'll sing to you about you." "I am in your eye. Take me. Try. I am your eye. As a born baby I have become your spy in the brightest dawn. Black night, you are ever bright." "World, you have a bright disguise (mountains and lights) but, Universe, I see your face in deadest night. Your face looks just like mine: we are open wide!" "In Spring the night sky is finally clear. My watery eyes, my pink lips beneath my winter beard. The blossoming skies, the pink glimpse beneath the planet's winter boughs." "Silence is the golden mountain."
IV. MT. EERIE
IN WHICH, on a precipice, you watch your killer roll up and kill you. Vultures eat your body and fly off, leaving the peak empty and windy again.
Mikheala Maricich says "Your legs walked..." & then Jenn Kliese & Anna Oxygen say "I watched you..." Then the "Precipice Carolers" sing *, then Kyle Field is Death & Karl Blau is the birds. They wrote and sang their own lines.
IN WHICH, coming out of the canyon in the dusk, you realize your ball of fire friend has set and doubt creeps in. A big beautiful dark backdrop above asks you intimate questions and sings.
Mikhaela Maricich is the Close Dark Voice. Calvin Johnson is the Universe's question akser & Jenn Kliese is the reply.
"On a mountain's mane I climb to my claim." "I am aimless, alone, and unravelling while above the barren wastelands of space know my true name." "What a true shadow!" "I see summits buried in more air."
II. SOLAR SYSTEM
IN WHICH, in a valley on the way up, the day is ending while you reminisce about a girl gracefully juggling a soccer ball in the park like a sun juggling (you as) a planet.
Mirah Y.T. Zeitlyn keeps saying "I know you're out there". We are reminded of the Little Wings song, "Fall Flood".
"Monday, May 14th, 2001 — Stockholm, Sweden — Sunday, May 13th, 2001 — walking through the Tanto 'Gardens' Park on a Sunday afternoon she got the ball kicked to her and lightly tossed it around with delicate legs I could see through a thin white skirt, back lit by the northern spring sunlight. I know she's out there." "You're like lanterns on wide night lakes."
I. the SUN
IN WHICH the story begins, where you are born and run away from death up the mountain in fear and are watched by a ball of fire.
Adam Forkner plays the cowbell and the trumpet. Anna Oxygen makes the sound of a swelling breath of a million voices.
At Dub Narcotic in Olympia, Wash. between Nov. 21st 2001 & June 10th 2002 except for the Karl Blau song, which he recorded on his 4-track in Anacortes.
Other parts by Phil Elvrum
* The Precipice Carolers:
Kyle Field, Phil Elvrum, Mikhaela Maricich, Phan Nguyen, Amber Bell, Bethany Hays Parke, Shawn Parke, Hollis Parke, Dennis Driscoll, Zach Alarcom, Adam Forkner.
"I saw tiny lights in the mountainous peaks"
— the Microphones, the Gleam pt. 2, 2001
"To be 'in the mountains' is a flower opening 'within the world'."
1, 2: Also released previous to Mount Eerie were the discs Singing from Mount Eerie and Drums from Mount Eerie highlighting the quality of the Microphones' lyrics and renowned drumming.
K Records: http://www.krecs.com
The Microphones: http://www.krecs.com/Microphones/
Pitchfork Media: http://pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/m/microphones/mount-eerie.shtml
All Music Guide: http://www.allmusic.com