The sublime has been a central interest of aesthetic theory puzzled over by deep thinkers from Edmund Burke to Kant and Hegel to postmodernists like Fredric Jameson. Eliciting the mixed reactions of overwhelming fear and intense pleasure, the sublime forces the individual to deal with phenomena beyond the easy comprehension of what the senses are conditioned to perceive. It’s what Romantic poets grappled with as they attempted to tap into extreme experiences of pain and ecstasy, and what Romantic painters tried to portray by representing the smallness of humanity in the face of nature in its most awe-inspiring manifestations. And it’s what Phil Elverum has captured in his work with the Microphones and Mount Eerie, crafting soundscapes shaped by swelling orchestration, dense melody, and metal-hardened atmospherics.
Indeed, the name Mount Eerie couldn’t be more appropriate for what amounts to Elverum’s sonic excursions into the sublime, as the sweeping compositions he creates on Clear Moon bring to mind the immense, the elemental, and the otherworldly. A lot of that effect has to do with the way Elverum constructed the album, which was recorded in a studio that he repurposed from the large, open space of an out-of-commission Catholic church. If anything, there are moments that get you thinking the album was actually made in a gothic cathedral: The echoing, immersive production Elverum comes up with on Clear Moon gives him plenty of room to explore My Bloody Valentine-like shoegazer mysticism and organic experimentation that’s reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel, all suffused through and through with the lush, woodsy Washington state environment where Elverum lives and works.
In the themes and musical structures Clear Moon develops, Elverum sounds like a man who’s trying to find his bearings in a world that surrounds him and dwarfs him. That journey starts on the majestic opener “Through the Trees Pt. 2”, as Elverum goes existentialist — “Misunderstood and disillusioned / I go on describing this place / And the way it feels to live and die”, are the first lines of the song — to the pastoral strum of an acoustic guitar and a faint heartbeat-like drum barely perceptible at the bottom of the mix. Yet even as the layers of instrumentation build, with clattering percussion, resonant strings, and some tolling bells all adding texture, Elverum’s calm, still voice conveys a searching quality that remains resolute no matter how much bigger everything around him gets to be. When the track gently opens up from a quiet meditation into something more expansive, you can almost imagine Elverum on top of Mount Erie (his band’s geographical namesake) looking down at vast vistas like the lonely figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Fog — or, as Elverum puts it himself in so many words, “The tumultuous place where I live / Comes a revealing”,
Just what the place where he lives reveals is what Elverum continues to seek on Clear Moon, as he creates viscerally powerful and emotionally connected pieces that reflect the grandeur of the natural world and what it makes him feel. That faint heartbeat in “Through the Trees” reappears on “the Place I Live” in the form of a thumped bass string that carves out just enough space amidst the haunting strings and dizzying feedback to make itself heard, suggesting that there’s a human touch that can’t be obscured by the white noise. So when Elverum sings, “If I look / Or if I don’t look / Clouds are always passing over”, to what sounds like a wobbly wind instrument that’s only growing in volume, he gives you the idea that he’s at peace with his place in the universe, no matter how small and insignificant it might ultimately be. It’s that sense of revelation and understanding that gives even the most daunting pieces on Clear Moon something immediate and personal to relate to: Harrowing tracks like “the Place Lives” and “Over Dark Water” may expand on the forays into dark metal that Elverum began on his previous Mount Eerie recordings, but what stand out about them are the swelling sentiments they inspire, as the sheets of disorienting, steely noise come off both ominous and oddly beautiful, imposing yet with a vulnerable underbelly beneath. The title track has the same depth and weight to it, but it stretches things out to play up the drama, as cascading washes of sound and Elverum’s echoing vocals evoke a sense of mystery and melancholy.
In the course of creating a musical expression for his existential condition, it’s as if Elverum finds a way to come to terms with and even appreciate what he can have no control over by giving in to an imagination that’s as large as the experiences he’s trying to give voice to. “Lone Bell” is a piece that’s too big to be contained by the standard boundaries between genres, as some strutting jazz-like elements like skronky horns and brushed drums bump up against flamboyant metal riffs on top of a droning noise-rock canvas. “House Shape” has a titanic sound to it that also has its catchy charms, as its metallic heft ends up careening and veering towards warm, fuzzy shoegaze, a tightly packed ball of melodic noise that’s like a crunchy, tree-hugging take on the woozy pop of Isn’t Anything-era MBV.
In short, the sensory overload of Elverum’s music can be consciousness changing. Ultimately, that’s what is sublime about Clear Moon, as it gets you to probe the limits of what you can take in and process only to push aesthetic boundaries further. In the case of Mount Eerie, though, Elverum’s musings are not just theoretical or philosophical, because his music is about turning the possibility of new experiences into new realities.