"10 songs recorded quickly and quietly during a surprise visit by Julie Doiron, keeper of the world’s greatest and saddest voice, and Fred Squire, hidden guitarist of the floating riff, in a small wooden room in Anacortes, Washington before they returned home to eastern Canada. Songs with the expression of the face of a baby in a burning world, in the swirling dust. They hang on a theme of impermanence and destroying forces. The river is revealed to be going right through the house, the river of inevitable chaos, sorrow and love." (Taken from Phil Elverum’s site http://pwelverumandsun.com/store)
Yes. Oh my god, yes. Sweet, merciful Jesus, yes. This album is…astoundingly good. But not just good…it’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s tear-jerkingly beautiful. I sat on the train today with this playing, watching the lights whir by as snow fell and it just…made sense.
Coming from my black metal roots, I couldn’t help but chuckle the first time I saw this album’s title (yes, this is a Burzum reference), but take heed, black metal fans, for this will not tickle your Varg/Grishnackh fancy.
“Lost Wisdom” fills every category needed on the good non-metal/rock album checklist:
Is it folk? Yes, yes it is. Check
Is it sad? Oh god, yes. Check
Are there male/female vocal harmonies? Yes. Yes. Yes. Check
Are the female vocals done by Julie Doiron? YES! Check
And last, but probably most important and relevant to this analysis: Was it recorded in a cabin in rural Washington? YES. YES. YES. YES. Check.
This time around, Phil Elverum meant business. After the spring release of the extraordinarily fuzzy, dense, almost metallic “Black Wooden Ceiling Opening” EP, he’s dropped the distortion, keyboards, and drums for a much more organic, desolate sound, and presents ten songs of love, loss, confusion, angst, existential confusion, and loneliness written alone in a cabin in the farthest reaches of Scandinavia. Songs written alone about being alone (how existential *chuckles*); I think this guy’s lyrical credibility went up a few notches in my book.
As mentioned earlier, Elverum enlisted the help of Julie Doiron, holder of the saddest voice on Earth, to harmonize with his quiet, distant yet familiar voice. When I first listened to this album (I feel so bad…I downloaded it off of a blog…), I heard the folky guitar enter with Phil’s voice and was pleased as is, but my eyes widened and my jaw dropped when Julie’s voice came in to complement his. In a romantic sense, their voices were almost meant to be together. Their voices waltz together, trade verses, build a choir behind a lead vocal track…they allow the other to grow their roots in the audience’s ears. This album is built around their voices; without these voices joining hands, the underlying theme of love lost and shared loneliness would be lost.
Elverum puts the acoustic guitar in the background, playing simple droning folky melodies as a backbone to the rest of the music. In this simplicity lies vast beauty and emotional complexity. Would the introduction of the first track be the same without the single note guitar beneath it? Would “Who?” lose its dark, nostalgic tone without the one-chord base? This simple style hearkens back to a more primitive time where music was a vessel to tell stories and express; not to prove technical prowess.
Fred Squire’s electric guitar work beneath Elverum’s adds a new layer of depth to these songs. A light fuzzy-yet-clean guitar flutters behind everything (“hidden” guitarist… “floating” riff…get it?), contributing to dynamics (note the louder strumming during the louder vocal parts in the title track, “Lost Wisdom”). The electric work of Squire gives “Lost Wisdom” the right amount of space to accentuate the loneliness felt by the narrator.
Speaking of loneliness and desolation, these dang lyrics are so bleak and excruciatingly sad, once you understand them, it’s pretty hard to “keep your cool” whilst giving this album a spin. My personal favorite lyrics are those to “O My Heart,” especially the second verse, starting with, “Oh, what’s this?” (following a very tasteful guitar solo):
“Oh what’s this? Is this my heart? Is it thumping? O my heart, there you are; I’ve stopped hunting. I thought you would be as big as a whale. My nets were knit, my heart moves on; I’ve had my ships sailed.”
These surreal lyrics that rely on a very nifty extended simile, surreal in the fact that his heart would be as big as a whale, though if his heart was that engorged he would probably die, but a cool image is seen in the mind’s eye, and the extended simile thus explaining that since the narrator thought that his heart was to be as big as a whale, he knit his net too large and his heart simply fell through the holes in the net, lost in the sea. Of course, his heart is lost in a sea of depression and turmoil; he wasn’t able to save love in time and thus it can’t be saved. Every song on this full-length demonstrates Elverum’s very strong grasp of prose; everything has an alternate, profound second meaning.
Mount Eerie’s “Lost Wisdom” is a wonderful work of deep, honest music. Every song is perfect the way it is, and is put in its logical place in the track progression. Needless to say this is probably my favorite release of this past year. It will accompany me on many coffee-drenched lonely nights and long drives. Let’s hope that Mount Eerie and Julie Doiron’s paths cross again.
Recommended for fans of: Low, Songs: Ohia, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Syndicate X, Thanksgiving, Charalambides, Nick Drake, Birch Book, Leonard Cohen, Ida, and the like.