Three weeks ago, on the first Friday of the new year, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum debuted a set of 11 new songs at Anacortes record store the Business. It was his first show in two years, and also the first since his wife, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée Elverum of Ô Paon, had passed away from a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer following the birth of their daughter—all of which they had kept intensely private up to this point. Last week, Elverum released two of those songs into the world, along with an eloquent statement about upcoming album A Crow Looked At Me, and so a review of that show now seems appropriate.
It was, as you'd expect, devastating.
An hour or so before show time, the small shop was already filling up. The guy from Car Seat Headrest was there. At 5pm, the store's owner stood up on a stool and asked the crowd not to record the show, to be respectful and present for what was about to happen, and if everyone could make room to sit down on the floor, which everyone did.
Elverum walked in from the back with an acoustic guitar and a stainless steel thermos, and went and stood in one corner. He apologized, he said, he was losing his voice, and with no further introduction, no mic, and no amplification, he launched into the songs.
Mount Eerie’s material has always had a sort of awestruck contemplation of death, loss, and void, but previously those themes were communicated with symbolism of the natural world, extended metaphor, parable. From the first soft but steadily sung lyric here (“I am a container of stories about you that I keep telling over and over”), it was clear that these new songs would dispense with all that. They were brutally direct, stripped down to the bones of this unimaginable loss.
“Death is real,” the first song ended, and the second (“Real Death”) began by echoing the same lyric and adding, “and not for making into songs or art.” This sort of reflexivity has long been typical of Mount Eerie (cf. “We’re Here to Listen,” “Stop Singing,” “Where?”), but here it was deployed more critically, as if to distance himself from the false depths of old songs with titles like, “The Bottomless Pit,” “Emptiness,” or “Great Ghosts” (a break-up ode).
Or, as he sang in another new song: “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about, before I knew my way around these hospitals.”
That reflexive instinct also finds life in Elverum’s penchant for call-backs and sequels, his recurring pantheon of the natural world, heavenly bodies standing in for earthly dramas, moons and mountains. In keeping, another new song evoked the old Microphones number “The Moon” (already echoed as “Moon Sequel,” among other iterations) with the lyric, “I went back to feel alone there,” appending it with, “but holding you inside me.”
In both instances, the lyric suggests a painful nostalgia, a desire to hold on to one’s sense of loss, but what felt willful and precious 15 years ago now fell with the weight of an imposed sentence.
It’s worth noting that much of the crowd was wiping away tears throughout the set, starting probably with the lines in “Real Death” about getting a package with wife’s name on it a week after her death and opening it to find a backpack she’d bought in secret as a gift for their daughter, even knowing it was for a life she wouldn’t be around to witness. Some people didn’t bother wiping them away at all.
There was a song about walking to a counselor every week until she couldn’t walk any more, "and then two months after you died, our counselor died, as though her work was done." In another (“Crow,” below), he addressed his daughter, “sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you, smoldering and fascist, with no mother?”
The songs were uniformly spare throughout, just Elverum’s clear voice over alternately delicate and droning acoustic guitar strums, but his voice held up against one of the most reverently hushed rooms I’ve ever heard. Halfway through the set, he slipped a cough drop in his mouth and went on singing around it.
Although everyone dutifully respected his wishes for no photographs or recording, it did look like an official audio recording setup had been deployed at his feet, and as beautiful as the fully realized recordings of these songs will no doubt be, hopefully, the performance will be released as a live album in the stripped-down tradition of Mt. Eerie albums Dawn or Live in Copenhagen.
Towards the end of the set, he announced, “This is my last song and I'm going to walk out the door afterwards.” The set’s opening song had grappled with the awkwardness of having the same conversations over and over again with strangers, another with the way that he could seemingly transform a grocery aisle into a mausoleum merely by his presence. So it seemed wise for him to duck out before the possibility of any post-show chit-chat from fans.
Which raises the old Mount Eerie question: “Why did we come here?” Wasn’t it destined to be morbid and heavy and weird, all awkward gawking and super-fans eager to claim “I was there”? Well, yes.
(And in fact, after the show announcement gained traction online, Elverum implored people not to come, reassuring fans that there would be more shows, an album, etc, etc.)
And though it was heavy and awkward and weird, it also felt supportive and cathartic and necessary. As the show went on, Elverum seemed to gradually warm from shellshocked to calm, and if playing songs seems like a strange way to cope, it’s what he’s been doing for 20 odd years—it’s probably as natural a strategy as anything else.
Last year was hard, harder for Elverum than for most, but it feels like everyone lost someone or something in 2016: a friend, a loved one, a hero or idol, or just their faith in fellow humanity. If Elverum could find some way out of this dark year and into the new one, I think we were all just desperate to hear it.
“We are always so close to not existing at all.”