At the beginning of Lost Wisdom, Phil Elverum is standing by a river. He is close enough that the rushing of water blocks out the trucks on the highway. That is what he tells us. He is running away from it all, again. Mount Eerie records, and to a lesser extent his Microphones records, have been ones of exclusion and isolation. But something is different this time. He’s got someone with him: Julie Doiron. And her voice, her mere presence, makes this record come to life in a different way from Elverum’s other work.
That river is not the only time water pops up on Lost Wisdom. It threads in tangled streams in and out of these songs. Sometimes, like in “Lost Wisdom”, it is a comfort, a buffer. Other times, songs revolve around storm imagery. On “What?”, Elverum mentions how “your love swells and pounds me” and on “Oh My Heart” he equates his heart to a whale, something he is trying to catch in a big net.
This lonesome nature, talk of the elements, the constant worry over death that permeates Lost Wisdom — none of these things are new to Elverum’s music. But most of his Mount Eerie output, even the big sound of Pts. 6 & 7 and the full-band, metalish Black Wooden Ceiling Opening, are ultra-internal, to the point of being exclusive. They sound like you’re listening to Elverum figure his feelings out. They’re affecting at their best, but still a little distanced and closed off, like Elverum is playing the album from a tiny cabin with shades pulled over the windows and you’re left outside to hear and wonder.
But Doiron’s lilting voice pokes some holes in the shades, gives Elverum another voice to play off. In hearing his voice interact with another, we get closer to both of them. Over the course of the album, they search for a hard-to-find clarity. Elverum has his hand in the water on that first track, appreciates the clarity. The fog of the cold, early-morning northwest around him makes it difficult to see where he is. But the bits the two sift through in looking for meaning in their mortality, in mining the gray days for flecks of shining hope, are affecting throughout this mini-LP.
“Voice in Headphones”, with its ghostly chorus of singers behind Elverum and Doiron, is a heartfelt tribute to music: how it can help you escape, how sometimes it can be the only connection you feel in a strange world. “You Swan, Go On” is a brief but lively celebration of the good in a relationship, remembered even as Elverum pines over its end. Doiron worries over the aging of the soul on “If We Knew…” The song sums up well the themes behind the whole album. “We would not be so scared of losing hair and slowing down, if we knew that our hearts were not aging,” she sings to open the song, touching on how inevitable mortality can affect the everyday if we dwell on it too heavily.
But the searching on the album, the insistent fear over death, is melancholy but not all fruitless doom. The way Doiron sings contentedly of heartache and loss assumes that something else will come along to help fill that hole. The way Elverum cracks and fizzles out in his singing, exhausted from his endless search for another passion, another sturdy shelter from the shaky world, injects his songs with some hope. The sheer determination with which he finds the small beautiful moments in life is the way he gets through the sadness of Lost Wisdom.
Though they end the record, on “Grave Robbers”, with the final line, “And our bones do blow away in pink light”, that is not really the end. Yes, the song cuts out right there. There’s no fade out. But after a few seconds of silence there’s the shuffle of someone hitting a drum, moving a guitar or something. Just that one fleeting sound. A hint that after this there’s the next song, the next moment of quiet beauty. Life doesn’t stop with the worry of death, and Lost Wisdom explores it. Hell, it obsesses over it. But it does so beautifully and without getting bogged down. These songs may be threadbare, full of holes and silence. But together Elverum and Doiron have made something achingly intimate, so that it feels more complete in its fractures. It reveals itself to be the most compelling Mount Eerie record to date.