Wind’s Poem Finds Phil Elverum Rushing Headlong Into the Void (Review)

Put simply, Wind’s Poem is the most haunting album I picked up in 2009.
Wind's Poem - Mount Eerie

My second son was born just two weeks ago and therefore, thoughts of mortality and life’s fleetingness ought to be the furthest thing from my mind right now. However, I’ve been wrestling my way through Mount Eerie’s Wind’s Poem — and my subsequent review of it — for the last few months, and mortality and life’s fleetingness are essentially all that this album is about. So here I go again, launching myself headlong into the void after Phil Elverum.

Elverum has always been one of those artists that has existed on my periphery, and though I’ve been somewhat familiar with and intrigued by his work, I’ve never been all that pressed or convicted to delve too deeply into his considerable discography. But perhaps it was the evocative title, or the eerie (NPI) album artwork depicting snow-covered evergreens set against a murky winter sky. Or maybe it was the news/rumor that this was Elverum’s “black metal” album (not that I’m a black metal fan, mind you, but the combination of Elverum and black metal struck me as humorous, if not intriguing).

Whatever the case, I ended up getting Wind’s Poem… and I haven’t been the same since.

Put simply, Wind’s Poem is the most haunting album I picked up in 2009, an album that is difficult to sit through due to the great terror and dread that fills its fifty-four minutes. Wind’s Poem is not a black metal album, all Burzum references aside. However, its generally quiet and subdued exploration of such themes as isolation, life’s impermanence, and man’s smallness in the face of nature’s wildness is darker and more terrifying than any blast beat or demonic vocal could hope to be.

And yet at the same time, Elverum’s mumbled vocals, fragile and exotic arrangements, and rambling, evocative lyrics make for a listening experience that is beautiful, entrancing, and even deeply moving at times.

Wind’s Poem begins with its most “black metal” moment, the cacophony of tortured guitars and punishing drums that is “Wind’s Dark Poem.” Beneath the roar, Elverum’s tremulous voice and rambling lyrics can just be heard setting the album’s unsettling and forlorn tone:

Wind’s dark poem is about the constantly roaring decay
The destruction of every day
And every morning’s waking

But even as spring is bringing blossoms back on the leaves
The cold wind blows when night falls
And the bare branches bend

The wind is Elverum’s muse, but it is not necessarily a gentle, nor natural one. Rather, it is as much an agent of (spiritual, personal, and natural) destruction and chaos as anything. As a result, the album moves from elation (Elverum celebrating the wind’s power and embracing the change that can result from destruction) to contemplative (Elverum ruminating on the fragility of life and love in the face of such power) to resignation (Elverum finding himself unable to withstand the onslaught and simply giving himself up to oblivion) and back.

Such sentiments are one thing when they’re drowning in furious, rumbling noise — the sonic equivalent of a howling gale, if you will. But when backed by the more subdued arrangements — which make up most of Wind’s Poem — they take on an even more preternatural air, as if Elverum, in his quiet, inimitable way, has tapped directly into something deep and primal, something that might be found lurking within that mysterious forest on the album’s cover. And when he does, his shivering voice does little to engender confidence or courage when he concludes that “Nothing means nothing/Everything is fleeting” on “Ancient Questions” (ironically, the album’s jauntiest number) or when he sings on “Summons”:

Now the wind speaks in the branches
Now the wind speaks, saying:
“Hold on to something and watch it go.
Everything you love will end up on the breeze.”

Normally, themes of alienation and isolation, of being aware of the fleeting nature of existence — what the Japanese might call mono no aware — are pet themes of mine. Which explains why I’m drawn to Haruki Murakami’s novels and Wong Kar-Wai’s films. But there are moments on Wind’s Poem where the sum of Elverum’s exploration of these themes proves too much. I’ve been reduced to a bit of a shaking mess at times by Wind’s Poem, by the helplessness that flows through Elverum’s songs — as well as by the stark truth they contain.

Yes, what Elverum sings is true. Despite our best attempts to believe otherwise or overcome it, the truth is that our lives are fragile things that are easily undone — by one another, by the forces of nature over which we have a precarious (at best) authority, and above all else, by the slow embrace of entropy. And yet, there’s something within us all that yearns for more, that rails against such feelings of weakness and insignificance.

I feel it when I think of my newborn son, who arrived in this world so abruptly and unexpectedly. When I watch my two-year-old son play around in my office as I try to write music reviews. When I am enjoying food and fellowship with friends and loved ones. When I have a quiet moment with my wife. And I feel it particularly keenly when I listen to music, particularly music like Wind’s Poem.

This is not merely a desire for a longer and relatively pain-free life, nor can it be so easily explained and dismissed as a “noble lie.” It’s a deep, deep longing for a completely different life, the kind that this impermanent world can, at best, only remind us of. And I suspect Elverum knows a little something of which I speak, even amidst all of the album’s oblivion.

After seven songs lamenting, contemplating, and/or embracing life’s impermanence, Elverum eases his way into “Between Two Mysteries.” The song is one of the album’s most otherworldly moments — which is saying something — as a synth melody lifted directly from the Twin Peaks soundtrack winds it way through an alien gamelan. Meanwhile, Eleverum sings of “black wooden mythologies” and, not surprisingly, mortality (“Driving to work in the morning, we live in graves”), before concluding:

And the songs fade, and the singers die
But my heart will not stop thumping
The shapes in the dark still look convincing
So here I am

At first blush, it looks like mopey, existential business as usual. But while the entire album is evocative, I find the images contained within “Between Two Mysteries” to be particularly gripping: that last stanza, a reflection of something inside us staring past the walls of the world; the “shapes in the dark” that evoke something ephemeral beyond this mortal coil; and the simple declaration and acceptance of existence rather than nullification in the song’s final line. Admittedly, the song is wrapped in shadows and sadness and so simple interpretations fall apart, but “Between Two Mysteries” still stands out as a beacon in the album’s midst, one of Wind’s Poem’s few potential points of light.

Throughout the length of Wind’s Poem, Elverum throws himself into the roaring wind and attempts to fully embrace oblivion, and survives (maybe) to tell the tale. The result is an album that is ultimately a deeply unsettling and frightening lament. And yet, because existence is beautiful and Wind’s Poem is — when you get right down to it — ultimately about existence, the result is also an album that occasionally crosses the thin line from gloom and dread to transcendence. And just as Elverum finds that his heart “will not stop thumping,” I find that I can’t stop listening, and every time I do, I’m left shaken, enthralled, and moved.

Read more reviews of Mount Eerie.