Singers is one of the best early Mount Eerie albums.
Released in 2005, Singers is one of the best early Mount Eerie albums, recorded shortly after that project assembled itself from the ashes of the Microphones. But it’s hard to imagine Phil Elverum looking back at it with much enthusiasm. In fact, it’s an example of the kind of writing about “conceptual emptiness” Elverum angrily rebuked in his recent records, made in the wake of his wife Geneviève’s death from cancer in 2016. It’s both poignant and perverse to hear her sing lines like “dying’s just a loop-dee-loo,” along with the dozens of other singers Elverum massed in his studio for the project.
Elverum comes across on some of his records as a hermit or wizard, obsessed with secrets, humbled by and worshipful of the vastness of the universe. In life, he’s a boyish and charming man, a respected pillar of the Northwest indie-rock community, and the cast of “singers” here includes just about everyone ever associated with him, from Mirah and Karl Blau to K Records bigwig Calvin Johnson. The relationship between Elverum and his singers is mutually beneficial: he gets a massive swell of voices to realize the fearsome visions in his head, and the singers get something fun to do.
The banter that presages some of the songs, especially “Ut-Oh! It’s Mourning Time Again,” is revealing. Everyone sounds young—Elverum would’ve been 26 or 27—and it’s safe to assume some beers have been drunk and some joints have been passed. At one point, a participant is asked to play a “cheesy guitar solo” and laughs in bewilderment. It’s clear Elverum and company are not taking this material particularly seriously, which is beneficial to the music given how grave the subject matter gets.
Singers is basically a memento mori. “Human, human,” Elverum sings to his own species; “how do you live and forget that you die?” “So Your Big Black Cloud Will Come” consists mostly of that phrase, and everyone sings it in an outpouring of mutual understanding while perhaps not fully grasping its implications. “I Can’t Believe You Actually Died” must give Elverum hives to listen to now: “You’re not dead, you’re free/ And I know that you’re happy on the other side/ The side I try to see.” Later in the song, the chorus devolves into peals of laughter.
Elverum’s treatment of death isn’t glib. He takes the underlying grief as seriously as someone who hasn’t yet experienced the death of a close loved one possibly could. But it’s irreverent in a youthful fashion that challenges the way the subject is so often thought about as sacrosanct. “Ut-Oh! It’s Mourning Time Again” is a pun hidden in a pop hook, and the mere title of “I Can’t Believe You Actually Died” gives away Elverum’s naiveté about the subject. After hearing his descriptions of the flat thud of death on A Crow Looked at Me, the flippancy of these songs is as difficult to swallow as their romance.
So what makes Singers worth listening to? As far as pure songwriting, it’s one of Elverum’s strongest collections. “Let’s Get out of the Romance” is a classic, opening as Elverum loves to do with a quest—in this case, to bury himself in snow, continuing a story thread from 2001’s “I Want to Be Cold.” The version of “Where Lies My Tarp?,” which has appeared elsewhere in his catalog, is definitive. The vocal arrangements are unpracticed but purposeful, alternating between joyous unison and the kind of big, ghostly chords, spelled out in wavering voices, that accompanied Elverum’s glorious symbolic death at the end of the Mount Eerie rock opera that concluded the Microphones.
And the communal environment is infectious. After Elverum’s been singing solo for a few minutes on opening track “Let’s Get out of the Romance,” the reveal of the other people in the room is like the lights switching on at a surprise party. The amassed men and women of Singers sound like they’re huddled together to escape the cold, engaging in a ritual that’s at once a reminder of death and a celebration of life—a jazz funeral or a wake for no one in particular. Singers is a powerful listen if you can sustain that romantic illusion in your head, but it’s not easy.