Mount Eerie No Flashlight: Songs of the Fulfilled Night, P.W. Elverum & Sun Records, 2005


If you are not familiar with Phil Elverum, he is Mount Eerie and has been The Microphones (K Records). He also puts out his own records now under the label P.W. Elverum & Sun. I could get pretty long-winded about this record because it really touched me with its vulnerable tones. So if you don't feel like reading all this, just know that this album is very unique and might give you chills.

Usually, Elverum records with all sorts of his Washington State friends (Mirah, Karl Blau, Little Wings) in huge, booming cacophonies of sound or, alternately, quiet, sentimental ballads. On No Flashlight , Phil is basically on his own with only a bit of musical assistance from Genevieve Elverum (his bride?).

The first Mount Eerie record was obfuscation. It was hard to see the mountain (chaotic drums and dense lyrics) and the fog (silence) made the path more difficult. On No Flashlight, Phil Elverum has graciously provided a map for his audience. His songs are lessons - some are about Phil's music and the more philosophical ones are about living/dying/perception. This trail map is in the form of his music but also in the possibly largest record art ever (5 feet by 3.5 feet) included with the LP that has explanations of the songs, lyrics, photos, bibliography, recommended reading notes, poems, with a summary, on one side, and an inky painting by Phil, on the other side, of a lone person under a foggy mountain.

If the first Mount Eerie was Phil's ascent up the mountain and his attempted retreat away from "the modern world" by going the way of the mystic hermit to live in a cabin in Norway, then No Flashlight is his descent from the mountain, having learned that it is not necessary to be so romantic and isolated to experience/live in the world. It's like he is saying that the attempted escape was silly and futile ("How?"). Really, it seems he found some of what he was looking for and came back to record this album with a most positive attitude.

Phil's singing and drumming and occasionally his guitar playing are where he really shines and his music has always flowed deep into my brain and resonated there like a bell ringing low and long. Where his other albums could often be enigmatic, this one is simple and straightforward in its gentle poetry.

The album starts with a disclaimer song, "I Know No One," acknowledging that, with conversation, there will always be misunderstanding but it's okay, we realize it and go on. I know I have misunderstood songs that Phil has sung but I will try anyway to tell you how I heard this album and why I think you should probably hear it too. This is where we start, with Phil's sweet voice in our ear. It continues to the real album with "I Hold Nothing," about the journey from day to night. This is the gate song, with living room rhythms of acoustic guitar, drums, and piano. The album is about the loneliness of feeling and uses the metaphor of the night for the interconnectedness of all experience. The songs are about night and ways to understand and live in the night.

Bats are a recurring image and Phil tells us in his notes that they sing a song we can't hear but their song welcomes the night like birds in the dawn and they need no light to explore the mysterious world of the dark. Unusual for Phil, the songs don't repeat the choruses over and over and create sing-alongs; here, they observe or speak and then end and the music is percussive and comforting with only "The Moan" and "The Universe is Shown" having that past Microphones' booming, clashing, powerful sound. The drums throughout the album are like chimes and tree branches in the wind, heartbeats.

One of the strongest themes is about how, in the night, we lose our shape and some of our perceptions shut down until we are left being part of the engulfing darkness and realizing that all there is is everything, which is really nothing in some ways and also it is just our nature, stripped bare. We think what we see is the world, but there is an invisible world that sometimes pokes through - like in the night, when we can feel without dividing things up with our eyes into "us and them." Phil builds up to this feeling with songs like "2 Lakes" and "2 Mountains," which are about the things we can see and the others, which are always there but we don't consciously think about. He gives the example of our "dark skeletons that reveal themselves in teeth and fingernails." These are old buddhist pearls but he polishes them and reminds us that these invisible things have influence: there is no inside or outside. We put food in our mouths from the earth and it becomes us, the earth grows dark and we go into the night's mouth and become part of it.

We go on a journey through the album from loneliness and confusion to realizing there is no way to hide from the world and, when you decide to participate in living, you can't do that by denying that this world of computers and cities and trash is not part of what makes the world our world. Beauty and sadness are everywhere, but the fear of death (metaphor of the night) is common. We can be overwhelmed by this but, one day, we ask, like Phil does: what do you do once you "admit this might be the world where I belong?" He decides to come back to the cities, accept that misunderstanding and hypocrisy are inevitable and still sing his songs for everyone anyway. This is part of the process of transforming angst to comforting action, like making songs. This music is dark, but sweet, gentle, but forceful. These words are not the music. The thing is not our perception but the thing. This record thing might make you feel better.

P.S. Phil already released another album, 11 Old Songs of Mount Eerie, with the primary instrument used being an old Casio keyboard.

P.S.S. This album would make a great companion to reading John Porcellino's mini-comics "King Cat."

Track Listing:
1. I Know No One
2. I Hold Nothing
3. The Moan
4. In the Bat's Mouth
5. No Inside, No Out
6. 2 Lakes
7. Stop Singing
8. No Flashlight
9. 2 Mountains
10. The Air in the Morning
11. The Universe is Shown
12. What?
13. How?
14. No Flashlight
15. 2 Moons

- Joe Martinez