Part of Phil Elverum‘s allure, specifically as Mount Eerie, is his ability to completely encapsulate the listener – primarily through his meandering lyrics, his captivating and innovative instrumentation, and his ability to eloquently depict tales of existential wonder and decay in a manner unlike any other. His albums are journeys, juxtapositions of seemingly incongruous musical styles and themes; yet they offer a certain continuity, an assurance that, by the end of the album, everything will be contextualized and serve its purpose. Elverum is unafraid of convention, fearlessly combining metal noise and acoustic minimalism, allowing his music to transcend genre to a greater purpose. 2009’s Wind’s Poem epitomized this sentiment, the first two songs progressing from brutal, hazy noise to quiet, acoustic lyrical poetry. These stark contrasts, that ultimately work together immaculately, make listening to Mount Eerie an intense, yet immensely rewarding experience. This is not music that we can indifferently allow to pass through the ears and out of mind.
In 2002, Elverum released a collection of Microphones’ rarities and previously unreleased singles aptly entitled Song Islands. The album spanned four years of work and a plethora of technical and sonic styles – some a seeming continuation of acclaimed The Glow Pt. 2, some nostalgic of the late nineties, some mere experimentation with sound manipulation. The album, although sporadically featuring moments of breathtaking beauty, could be best described as discordant. It made sense that a collection of random songs would not be characterized by its fluidity, but this format undoubtedly lessened the potential impact of the songs, had they appeared in a more appropriate context.
Inevitably, Song Islands Vol. 2 follows suit. A sequel to The Microphones’ Song Islands, this second volume instead features the out-takes of Elverum’s work as Mount Eerie. Fault the format, fault the attempt to span a decade’s worth of unreleased material – but the magic of Mount Eerie and Elverum’s previous work is sadly lost in the discontinuous nature of the collection. Any semblance of order is indiscernible. On the bright side, though, there are radiant gems among the rough, buried within the 31 songs and over 80 minutes the album presents.
With track length averaging just over two minutes, Song Islands Vol. 2 hops around from style to style, brief and underdeveloped. The imagery of islands couldn’t be more appropriate, for the songs are just that – stand-alone, autonomous entities, sometimes surrounded by harsh blows, others by tranquility and reassurance.
The trek begins with “Where?”, a slew of reflexive questions and answers, toying with ideas of the mountain, the man, and his status as an artist. “Where is Mount Eerie? And how do I get there?”, he asks, answering with “Mount Eerie is nowhere/Mount Eerie is playing tonight”. The following two tracks pick up the tempo, adhering to guitar and drums to accompany almost whispering vocals. Similar in theme and style, these songs set a false precedent for the rest of the album.
At this point, stand-out track “I Whale” breaks the monotony with a song-long crescendo to hazy, electronic guitar and layered, gritty vocals. Harmless “O My Heart” lulls us to sleep, only to be brutally awoken by an instrumental track of thrashing noise. The album continues in this manner, mixing in the occasional jazz ditty, pop song, ear-wrenching noise interlude.
A re-visitation of “Voice in Headphones” mesmerizes with its soaring vocal harmonies and almost haunting repetition of “It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill,” a line and melody clipped from Bjork’s Vespertine gem “Undo”. Perhaps attesting to the listening experience of the album, this soothing song renews our patience in expecting the abrupt and unfinished. Not even the most soothing voices, though, could mentally prepare us for the sequence of harsh “You Turn Me On”, harmless “A Sentimental Song”, and jazzy “Mystery Language”. On their own merits, these songs are enjoyable. The first offers brutal honesty and heavy drums. The second, an ornate orchestration. The third, an instant about-face to saxophone and catchy rhythm. Together, though, they are confusing and detract from one another. We have no time to dwell, no time to reflect.
Much later in Song Islands Vol. 2 Elverum gives us perhaps the most complete work of the compilation – brooding, emotionally charged, heavy “Lost Wisdom”. Nearing seven minutes in length, the quasi ballad begins slowly, explodes, retreats and recovers. The melodic humming that separates the verses is as beautiful as it is damning, and in the case of this song, being damned is desirable. Fortunately discarding the arrhythmic patterns that tossed us from shore to shore, a sedate “(Wind Lyrics)” and “Small House” conclude our journey – rendering us tattered and worn, yet moved.
Song Islands Vol. 2 hits incredible highs and lows even the most dedicated fan would question. Its discontinuity and inconsistency are definite flaws, yet a handful of impressive material redeems a fair portion of the shortcomings – rendering the album, on the whole, a worthy investment of time and thought.