Love isn’t all you need, but it’s what Elverum needs right now, and it seems to be helping a lot.
The last time Phil Elverum produced an album called Lost Wisdom, he was in a state of transition. He’d concluded his old band the Microphones with a rock opera called Mount Eerie, where he died gloriously on a mountaintop and found himself staring into the face of the Universe itself. The projects that came after—No Flashlight, the unadorned Dawn, and the lovely Julie Doiron collaboration Lost Wisdom—felt like Elverum picking up the pieces after an explosion. It would be a while before he’d find the confidence to make epics like Clear Moon, which rivals the best work of his lo-fi adolescence.
Since the death of Elverum’s wife Geneviève in 2016, the singer has struggled with the purpose of the Mount Eerie project while, paradoxically, making some of its most striking music. Rather than asking awed questions about the vastness of the universe, he chronicled his pain in blunt language. The hoo-hah quandaries about death in his older work seemed feeble next to the emptiness of the actual thing. “Nothing is real except this one thing,” Elverum sighs on “Widows,” from Lost Wisdom, Pt. 2. If you’ve kept up with Elverum, you already know what that one thing is.
So Lost Wisdom Pt. 2 finds Elverum once again reunited with Doiron, singer of the Canadian band Eric’s Trip, and once again picking up the pieces of his life. He pursues purpose and clarity, finding it in art, walking through museums, listening to music, reading Joanne Kyger and studying Buddhism (“Belief Pt. 1” was inspired by Zen philosopher Takuan Sōhō). Along the road he settles on a commitment to “love,” which for Elverum means not just giving his heart to someone else but to everyone, to the whole world, rejecting emptiness and embracing good.
The tragedy is that it seems so inconclusive. It’s comforting after the relentless sadness and soul-searching we find here to hear Elverum spread his arms on “Belief Pt. 2” and announce “I love you” to whoever’s listening. It also feels like an idea he’s entertaining in his head to find a temporary peace. It’s a little like the end of Marvin Gaye’s “God is Love,” where he spirals enrapt up to heaven and desperately cries “I know!” before plummeting back to earth. Lost Wisdom Pt. 2 is not a portrait of someone who’s found answers. He’s on his way there, fumbling through “formless rolling waves of discomfort and uncertainty.” The story is far from over.
Elverum briefly married actress Michelle Williams and moved to New York between his last album Now Only and now. He mentions that here, portraying himself on “Belief Pt. 1” as blindly dazzled by her beauty and promise of love. On “Widows,” he talks bluntly about his discomfort at tabloids—a place where hermetic folkie Elverum never thought he’d find his face—reporting on his every move. It’s funny that Lost Wisdom Pt. 2 should come out the same day as FKA twigs’ Magdalene, written after her no-less-scrutinized relationship with actor Robert Pattinson.
But Lost Wisdom Pt. 2 isn’t a tidy narrative. It’s more of a portrait of a mind in flux, and like Now Only before it, it skips through time. In the long series of part-twos and sequels and prequels and continuations in the Elverum catalog, none of his works have been so self-referential. He quotes “Flaming House” from the first Lost Wisdom, which in turn quotes “Let’s Get Out of the Romance” from the underloved Singers. One strum pattern on “Love Without Possession” mirrors “The Glow,” a song more than 20 years old, and “Belief” nods at “Dragon” from Sauna, the last product of what could be called the Old Mount Eerie.
Why these references to his older art? Maybe it’s a reconciliation. Crow was uncomfortable about its own status as art about grief. Now Only, while proggier and more dense, was a little more comfortable with that fact. But even if Lost Wisdom Pt. 2 still reads like its lyrics were written first—sometimes to its detriment, as on “Enduring the Waves”—it’s a treat to hear Elverum up to his old hijinks again. When he sings of “the void” on “Love Without Possession” we hear one of his favorite sounds, the low thrum of a harmonium, open vast spaces. He hasn’t written harmonies this stunning since Clear Moon, and from the moment his voice harmonizes with Doiron’s we know we’re hearing something great.
Maybe that’s part of Elverum’s love. Last year’s live album After poked at the contradictions of what Elverum calls “playing death songs for people on drugs.” A friend who saw Elverum on that tour was shocked to see him at the merch table, posing for selfies and smiling with fans, after performing this gutting music from the bottom of his soul. This scenario seems a little less absurd after Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, which he’ll soon tour with Doiron. Love isn’t all you need, but it’s what Elverum needs right now, and it seems to be helping a lot.