Article

Mount Eerie Sings About Love, Death and Empty Paper Towel Rolls at Melbourne's Max Watt's

Thirty minutes later, Phil takes the stage. It’s just him, an electric guitar in his hands with a cord running back to his amp. This is how it will be the entire show.

featuredHomenonfictionreviews

Phil Elverum does not play the hits.

It’s one of those unspoken agreements between the artist and the audience–you go to a show, they play the songs that made them famous. They’re expected to do it again night after night in city after city. And Phil is certainly a guy with what might humbly be called a legendary discography, one plentiful with songs that he could wheel out every gig to raucous effect. Back in his late teens and early twenties, he masterminded the lo-fi indie band The Microphones who, if internet music nerds (of which I count myself a part) are correct, released one of the greatest albums of all time in 2001: The Glow Pt. 2. A few years later, he would adopt the sobriquet “Mount Eerie”, under which he has been performing ever since.

All his work but particularly The Glow Pt. 2 is a distillation of that poetry class adage that the more specific you are and the more you hone in on the granular details of your own life, the more you tap into something resembling universal insight on what it means to be human. Phil’s work is grounded in his hometown of Anacortes, Washington, in its coastal pine forests and mountainous islands; it’s grounded in his life, in the relationships that he’s had and that he’s lost. Yet, here among the eucalyptic bush and brown creeks of my home in Melbourne, Australia, Phil’s music has been the soundtrack to every key moment of my life for the past eight years. It’s seen me through spells of isolation and periods of implosive partying, through heartbreaks and times where the totality of human love has overwhelmed me, through graduations and grievings and growing up.

Phil Elverum does not play the hits. And as much as I might want to hear them–I understand. There’s something dishonest in forever hearkening back to songs intended to capture feelings localised to points in time; it is to reject their evanescence. When you see Phil live, you get him as he is in that moment, unmediated. Playing what he wants to play. It’s a show experience unlike anything else. It’s the reason why I still have such a clear recollection of seeing him for the first time in 2018, a scrappy adolescent who could barely wrap his head around its profundity, stammering a “thank-you-for-everything” to Phil after the show before escaping back to the suburbs.

Now, six years later, I return to Mount Eerie–this time, at Max Watt’s on a springtime Saturday evening. P and I arrive 45 minutes early to find that there is a small contingent of people even more dedicated to getting barrier already lining up. The queue builds even more over time until it snakes around the corner, beyond sight, onto Little Collins Street. It’s a far larger crowd since Phil’s last appearance in Melbourne. Predictably, it’s dominated by zoomers in merch for other /mu/core touchstones–I spy a Car Seat Headrest hoodie and Loveless tee.

Doors open and we manage to squeeze into a spot at the barrier. It’s still half an hour until the opener is to appear; in the meantime, the speakers are playing Sufjan Stevens. Nearby, people are talking about how much they’re gonna cry during the Mount Eerie set.

Our opener is Hana Stretton, an Australian artist very much in that Mount Eerie vein of folksy indie music that makes you feel both simultaneously more and less alone in the universe. Often ambient, often beautiful, Hana’s whole body is instrumentalised towards the music–guitar in hand, shakers on her bare feet, her voice hovering above it all, this fragile, immense thing. There are some audio issues early on, Hana’s voice tilting into a static blare, but she’s able to play it off without letting it disrupt her set. Towards the end, Hana mentions that she’s been listening to Phil for fifteen years and that opening for him now feels like a culmination of everything she could have wanted back in that era of adolescence. And well, yeah, fair enough–it’s a good thing for her that she kills it.

Thirty minutes later, Phil takes the stage. It’s just him, an electric guitar in his hands with a cord running back to his amp. This is how it will be the entire show.

In typical Phil fashion, the setlist tonight is almost entirely unreleased music or Mount Eerie deep cuts. The opening songs are subtle, gentle, telling stories of a Phil out in nature alone with himself to meditate on a natural world that can be both welcoming and frightening. The boundaries between many of these songs are loose, they all feel like Phil trying to grasp at what he always has–suffering, loneliness, meaning.

These songs are at times disarmingly humorous in their ambiguity, bearing titles like ‘Egg Smell Spa’ and ‘Empty Paper Towel Roll’. It’s Phil continuing to mine the minutiae of everyday life for significance–even though it’s never there in the way he expects. It’s important to note that Phil is funny in that low-key kinda way. At one point, he jokes about needing to come into the crowd like Ian MacKaye to throw down in a (obviously nonexistent) mosh pit. When someone heckles him to “play ‘The Glow’ [sic, presumably–unless they do literally mean the song off It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water]”, he drily asks the heckler to repeat their comment before saying that they’ll “talk about it later”.

A highlight in the setlist is ‘Cooking’, an older song of Phil’s that comes off a 2010 B-sides compilation called Song Islands Vol 2. Here, in Melbourne, in 2023, it takes on this new force–Phil takes aim at us in the audience, “you young people of the modern mega-state”, forcing us to reckon, right there in the bowels of the Melbourne CBD, with our culture of complicity and endless convenience. (I think about the guy who heckled earlier.) The guitar unleashes jagged staccatos at this dark, plodding, almost militaristic rhythm. It’s an accusatory song, one revelatory of a certain discomfort that Phil seems to have with the audience his indie stardom brings. It’s exactly the song we needed that night.

The final song of the setlist is another unreleased track, ‘Stone Woman Gives Birth to a Child at Night’. It’s about trying to find meaning in this eponymous statement that Phil found in a book on zen, but not quite getting there in the end. The meaning is never in the object, it’s in the search.

Phil Elverum does not play the hits. He doesn’t play encores either. So, you can imagine the elated shock when he returns to the stage after this final track, hand forced by a crowd that wouldn’t let up in their chants, to start playing ‘I Felt Your Shape’. It’s a crowd-pleaser, a short acoustic classic from The Glow Pt. 2 that I find myself mouthing the lyrics to.

Afterwards, when Phil returns to the stage to pack up his instruments, a crowd reforms at the barrier. They banter back and forth, Phil’s face occasionally breaking into a dimpled, youthful grin. I leave Max Watt’s with that moment clear in my mind–Phil, draped in his loose flannel, at ease amongst people.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Two 2023

EDITION SIX 'PHANTASMAGORIA' AVAILABLE NOW!

The harpsichords sound like skeletons. The wings of butterflies open and close like lungs. The trees are murdered for pianos. The dust in the abandoned antique store glows gently, as if made from the powdered skulls of fairies and changelings. Welcome to the weird and wonky world of Edition Six, Phantasmagoria. We bid you to tread carefully...

Read online