March 18, 2017 — “Distortion” by Mount Eerie

Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie)

If you only listen to one song today, make it “Distortion” by Mount Eerie (2018, from the album Now Only).

Mount Eerie is the Anacortes, Washington ambient indie-folk/slowcore brainchild of Phil Elverum. He used to front a band called The Microphones, who formed in 1996 and released four albums on legendary punk label K Records between 1999 and 2003. The last of those albums was Mount Eerie, and after its release, Elverum announced that he’d no longer use the Microphones name. Since then, he’s done a bunch of visual art things and he’s recorded under the Mount Eerie name.

His 2015 album Sauna was my #17 record of that year, and it really should have been placed closer to the top ten of my year-end countdown. Last year’s A Crow Looked at Me was certainly among my very favourite albums of the year, but because of its weight, one can really only listen to it a few times without becoming engulfed in sadness. That heartbreaking work of staggering genius (you should read Dave Eggers’ book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) was about the death of his wife Genviève Castrée. Every song is about her. Every song is about death. Every song is heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s a really difficult album do listen to, but it was met with universally rave reviews.

I was very excited when I saw Mount Eerie on the Hopscotch lineup last autumn, and I was completely blown away by his performance. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. You can read about that here. During that stunning set, he played a couple of works in progress, which eventually became the songs on Now Only.

The new album, which just came out on March 16, has also been met with rave reviews. It’s more or less a companion piece to A Crow Looked at Me. These are also songs about Genviève. These are also beautiful and painful songs about death. They’re written and sung by a man who has very fresh wounds, and he makes his audience understand his pain. Today’s song is the one that made me lose my mind at Hopscotch.

Right off the bat, there’s the heavily distorted electric guitar, which is something that there isn’t much of on this album and even less of on A Crow Looked at Me. That chunky, fuzzy bit sounds a little like the opening to an alternate version of Pavement’s “Here”, or maybe any number of Sonic Youth songs. But this isn’t the high-intensity of those bands; far from it. This is somber and unbearably heavy, but he somehow makes it easy for his audience to relate. This is, as I’ve said before, the kind of song about love and loss that Mark Kozelek wishes he could write. Kozelek can write the hell out of a song about being dumped (see: “Katy Song”), but I’ve hated his stuff about death and mortality (see: Benji) because I found it over-the-top and hard to relate to.

Today’s song is thematically heavy and on the long side. It takes a great deal of effort to listen to this, and it takes some time to decompress after listening. Give it your undivided attention. Listen to this alone in a quiet room. Don’t listen while you’re doing dishes or working out or something like that. Buy this record. Listen to it with your full attention. Admire the artwork. Then leave it alone for a while. You can’t return to it very often. If you get a chance, you need to see Phil play these songs live. It’s an emotionally and even physically exhausting experience, but it’s worth it.

The thing that makes this so powerful is the very candid account of seeing first his great grandfather’s dead body many years ago, then his wife’s dead body in their bedroom. It’s about getting another glimpse into his own mortality and a feeling about the fingerprints that we all leave behind:

The second dead body I ever saw was you, Geneviève,
when I watched you turn from alive to dead right here in our house.
I looked around the room and asked “Are you here?”
and you weren’t, and you are not here. I sing to you though.
I keep you breathing through my lungs
in a constant uncomfortable stream of memories trailing out
until I am dead too
and then eventually all the people who remember me will also die
containing what it was like to stand in the same air with me
and breathe and wonder why

There are also some other personal things woven into the song, and most of it is sort of hard to take. Neither this song, nor the album as a whole, is a walk in the park.

You can buy the new album via the Mount Eerie site here. You should also buy a box of tissues.

About dlee

North Carolina born and bred. I'm a restaurant guy who spends free time listening to music, watching hockey and playing Scrabble. I have a bachelor's degree in political science and I will most likely never put it to use. View all posts by dlee

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