[P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2018]
“I went back to feel alone there/ I went back to wipe it clean/ I took the lights and radio towers out of my dreams.”
– The Microphones, “The Moon”
“I went back to feel alone there/ All past selves and future possibilities on hold/ While I tore through the dark on the freeway.”
– Mount Eerie, “Soria Moria”
The most intimate form of the live album is the solo acoustic concert. A musician walks on stage, picks up an instrument, and performs for a phantom audience; yet, as you experience it through the recorded version, it feels as if the musician is playing directly to you. For an hour or two, they satisfy your desire for companionship with a simulated intimacy that makes you feel like someone is selflessly giving you their time, and when the audience claps at the end of each track, it jolts you out of the intoxicating current that’s been making you think that you’re the only one listening. In these kinds of albums, the public and the private become intertwined in unique ways, almost as if the private experiences that comprise public concerts — which number exactly as many as the number of tickets sold — become distilled to their most essential form.
When you listen to a studio album, on some level you’re aware that the music’s been written, recorded, mixed, produced, pressed onto something concrete, and delivered to you in a readily consumable package. Such music always appears distant in some way, even if it’s quiet, resonant, devastatingly relatable. A live solo acoustic album, on the other hand, somewhat fetishizes this process by suggesting a direct line between you and the musician: if you close your eyes while listening to it, the performer could very well be in the same room as you. You hear a cough, the creak of a chair, maybe even a wrong note. When you’re listening to this kind of music, perhaps you feel a little less alone. If you were lucky as a child, maybe your mother or father used to sing to you, and now this stranger is singing to you. Where are your parents now?
I was deeply fucked up in 2014. Living in squalor in Chicago while working part-time at Whole Foods and trying to finish my master’s thesis, I woke up one day and decided to leave reality. I quit my job, shelved my project, and bought a Nintendo DS. For months, I ate away at my savings while staying up until 6 AM every day playing Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, rewatching The Sopranos and Seinfeld, and recording bad music on my guitar. I didn’t have Facebook or Twitter. I mostly ate soaked beans during this period, which I would boil and then season a little bit and eat over rice. I stopped caring about paying my bills, and eventually my gas was shut off. I started convincing myself that I enjoyed taking cold showers and eating tepid food.
One day, a friend told me to listen to Sun Kil Moon’s album Benji, which had just been released. On first listen, I knew that it was unlike anything I’d ever heard, just a guy “laying it all out there” over some beautiful (but extremely repetitive) music. Most of the songs involved Mark Kozelek singing over a minimal amount of florid guitar tracks, and basically all of the songs dealt with the loss and/or death of his friends, family members, and colleagues. Listening to Benji, I started to think about what it meant to just say honest, emotional things in an open way, without much apparent concern for form or structure; it felt almost anti-aesthetic to me, like I was listening to a friend tell sad stories, but as “art.” It felt new and captivating, but I also wasn’t sure that it was “great” — frankly, I still don’t know how I feel about it.
Benji led me to the live album Kozelek released around the same time, Live at Biko, which contained a number of songs from the former and from other albums he’d made around then. I became obsessed with listening to Live at Biko, liking it even more than Benji, probably because it was a solo acoustic album and it made me feel less alone. I started spending my days walking around outside, listening to Benji and Live at Biko, trying to absorb the stories Kozelek was telling, thinking about the way he was telling them, wondering about how he was experiencing them as he reflected. I couldn’t believe that somebody could cultivate such an intimacy with complete strangers that they could discuss their most private feelings with liquid ease. Sun Kil Moon’s Benji and Live at Biko were extremely important albums to me during this time, not because of their “greatness,” but because they housed within them something that felt honest and true. As a critic, this grey area is difficult to write about: how can an album mean one thing to me intellectually and theoretically, and another thing to me as a human being in despair? The truth is that no matter how well we grasp this shit, we’re never actually above it — not really.
A few years after I left Chicago, Geneviève Castrée, Phil Elverum’s wife, died. Elverum subsequently released two heavy albums as Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only. Like Benji, these albums are free-associative and sprawling, and are hard to reckon with aesthetically. A Crow Looked At Me’s melodies and orchestrations are simple, its instrumentation minimal, and the songs mostly static in tone and texture — Elverum was right to describe it as “barely music.” Now Only, on the other hand, is much more composed and thought-out, its songs transforming, kaleidoscopic canvasses of suffering and overcoming. Together, the two albums form a sort of self-analysis by Elverum, a place where he was working to understand himself, to return to the site of his own trauma, to “go back to feel alone there.”
This brings us to (after), Mount Eerie’s new live solo acoustic album. Containing songs from both A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only, (after) is a rare, unplanned document of a guy opening up in front of a bunch of strangers. Reviewing this type of album can be difficult, which is in part why Tiny Mix Tapes rarely publishes pieces on live albums. As a reviewer, how do I approach writing “objectively” about a recording of a live performance that other people attended? I wasn’t there and am not reviewing the actual concert, nor am I reviewing the music, since the music has already been discussed — magnificently, I might add — in its original form. This concert, which took place November 10, 2017 at the Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht, Netherlands, wasn’t even supposed to be recorded; as Elverum writes in a press release for the album, an audience member went rogue, and after hearing the contraband, Elverum decided to release the “beautiful recording of that show.”
As a product, an object, of course this album is great. The guitar is heard clearly, and Elverum’s voice comes through on top. Silence heightens the mood, people clap, a door slams. As a performance, it’s impressive: Elverum switches between strumming chords and picking individual lines, and he does it all while effortlessly delivering his challenging lyrics and their imbalanced melodies. So, sure, (after) is a terrific live album. It sits in the top tier with other indie folk/rock live albums, like Bill Callahan’s Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, Ryan Adams’s Live at Carnegie Hall (the full version), the Elliott Smith bootleg Live at Studion, and, of course, Kozelek’s Live at Biko. But there’s something worthwhile about these albums that goes beyond their technical mastery and the songs they contain.
A live album is essentially nothing, just other things pressed into a new thing. So, what is there, really, to review? Is a review of a live album, then, mostly projection? If so, how do I objectively put my own private, subjective experience into an essay that can be meaningful for others to read? Should I be trying to understand why people went to the concert, what they might have gotten out of it, how they could have felt? Should I, instead, be thinking about Phil Elverum and his own experience playing the show? In other words, what’s the point of writing about this? If I listened to the two studio albums, why should I care about (after)?
Sure, we want to feel comforted, to hear some pretty tunes, but this is not about the “collective experience” or the “soothing power of live music.” That’s bullshit. What we really want, more than anything, is a violent, radical thrust into the absolute core of our being, one that finds that seed of despair and destroys it. And it can’t be found in music, only in life. The reason we listened to A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only, the reason a few hundred people went to see Mount Eerie on November 10, 2017, the reason people will listen to (after), the reason I responded to Live at Biko the way I did, and the reason you’re reading this review in the first place… they’re all the same: we all want to find some way to understand and be freed from our pain, whether or not we’re conscious of it. Some people go to psychoanalysis, some join cults, some run marathons. Some people shoot up schools and malls, others become activists. Some make and listen to music. Elverum’s deepest thinking and most powerful self-work was probably done outside of this album, but it still stands as a monument to his processing of despair — that’s part of its aura. Through these three albums, Elverum has become something new, and that’s the real stuff of the human experience. We need pain — it’s what moves us to do things.
“These waves hit less frequently,” Elverum sings in “Now Only.” “They thin and then they are gone/ You are gone and then your echo is gone/ And then the crying is gone.” It may not seem like it when we’re in the void, but it is possible to understand why we suffer. It is possible to achieve some form of historical consciousness, even if it just starts with the history of our own lives. Maybe that’s a fine place to start. If we were collectively able to understand the source of our real pain, the sadness we all feel every day — and I know you feel it — if we truly located that, we would probably find in ourselves a strength that we couldn’t previously have imagined. So, how should we think about (after), a live performance of music that barely qualifies as music? It’s hard to say, but if it pulls you far enough out of yourself that you somehow wind up back in yourself, a little deeper than you were to begin with, then something about it is good.