Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
“We’re stuck in the muck of our hearts.”
These words softly spoken by Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum deserve special attention. No other lyric recited through the 42 revelatory minutes of Dawn more fully capture its essence. From this muck, however, Elverum is not crafting the tale of stagnant depression that such a sentiment may imply. He accepts it as a crucial detail of the human condition; difficult to fight and perhaps worth embracing. In this light, the apparent contradiction between the album’s namesake and its thesis is resolved. From the darkest human emotion Elverum does his best to find brightness; his new perspective breaks like the light of a new day.
Dawn is Elverum’s third full-length release under the Mount Eerie moniker, a name he first used to title The Microphones’ 2003 finale. As the central figure in that critically lauded project, Elverum established himself as one of the strongest songwriters of the late ’90s and early ’00s , particularly with the definitive 2001 LP, The Glow, Pt. 2. As Mount Eerie, Elverum drops a few layers from the often dense recordings of The Microphones. The raw, unpolished feel remains while his articulate lyricism is vaulted to the forefront of the listening experience. Simple nylon acoustic melodies envelop his distinct voice; a desperate frailty confounded by youthful charm. Quiet confidence and candid sincerity underlie his stories woven richly of imagery and metaphor.
The story of Dawn goes all the way back to the winter bridging 2002/03. Long before Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon made it cool, Elverum retreated to a remote cabin, deep in the Norwegian wilderness. Here he would spend the next few months alone, filling pages with intensely personal verse and apparently listening longingly to Björk’s Vespertine (see “Voice in Headphones”). The 19 songs that emerged from the snowy woods represent a triumph of introspection. Far from embodying the escapist fantasy that a cabin in the woods may conjure, the product of Elverum’s isolation reveals deep torment. He’s waged battles with ghosts, wolves and nameless captors. These stories remain as the scars to prove his experience.
“I’ll find someone new/ And I’ll not treat them like you do,” Elverum declares on the album opening “It Wasn’t the Hunting”, thereby introducing a crucial and prevalent thread in his poetic tapestry; woeful bitterness. A substantial chunk of the conflict experienced by our protagonist is quite obviously the result of a heart ravaged by love gone awry. Pushing the issue explicitly, “Moon Sequel” extends the melody and narrative of The Microphones’ “The Moon” with affecting acrimony. Dawn’s intensity peaks instrumentally as Elverum wallows in her inescapable memory, “Yeah I can leave all the places we went/ But I can’t leave without my bones you bent.”
Each and every track is pieced together from these poignant, thought-provoking moments that play easily on emotion with a haunting familiarity. “My Burning” covers fiery, all-consuming desire, “Great Ghosts” further laments the unfortunate fullness of memory, “Dead of Night” focuses the fear of darkness. Elverum has tapped into a stream of consciousness that we’ve all dipped our toes into at one time or another. In this language of human universals, Dawn chronicles Elverum’s transition from hopeless floundering to, well, hopeful floundering. Months alone haven’t sweetened the bitterness; they’ve shown him that it’s okay to be bitter. Sweetness, after all, is a state of mind achieved only through delusion. Exhausted from battle, he howls with his ghosts and embraces his captors.
There’s very little not to like about this record. While many of the songs have existed in various forms for the past six years as live staples or on other Mount Eerie recordings, their collection into a cohesive whole feels indispensable. Many fans decried the end of The Microphones, but an album like Dawn emphasizes the necessity of Elverum’s maturation into Mount Eerie; it has brought a calmer setting from which he could coax this cabin diary to its fullest expression.