here’s been more than enough pixel-theorizing about what Phil Elvrum is trying to say on Mount Eerie’s debut studio album No Flashlight. Elvrum even goes so far as to try tell you exactly what it is he’s singing about—the record comes with fold-out artwork that far surpasses most any packaging ever released (it measures about 5 ft. x 3.5 ft.) because his lyrics tend to be somewhat inscrutable without careful and patient explanations. When it’s all said and done, the theme seems to be this: the world that we see isn’t real—there is another world hidden by the constructions that we, and others, build around us.
Fair enough, chum. I’ve never been much of a lyrics man (let alone those that purport to be so philosophy-heavy), so I’ll take your word for it. For those of you out there that are, rest assured that you’ll have plenty to chew on, mull over, and talk about with your equally aureate friends. I’m honestly more interested in how it looks (great), how it sounds (pretty good), and how it makes me feel (we’ll get there).
The American version of the record clocks in at nearly thirty-eight minutes. In that time, however, self-referentiality is the name of the game: chord progressions from previous albums are given new life, songs are allotted the same name, melodies are recycled, and structures (for “(2 Lakes),” “(2 Mountains),” and “(2 Moons)”) are repeated as well. But it’s not as though Elvrum is starved for ideas. Far from it, in fact. Instead, this is the creation of a self-contained universe. Binding the record together tightly, this repetition marks cohesiveness, rather than a paucity of material.
Musically, the ultra lo-fi aesthetic predictably remains—the first “No Flashlight” pairs Jandekian guitar shards and a hand-played trash-can drum set, the drunk tuba of “The Universe Is Shown” leads a clattering percussion heavy two-minute romp, and “I Hold Nothing” reveals a flowery guitar melting with carefully plotted piano and double-tracked vocals. Each song is a ramshackle affair—obviously composed with complete care and then casually blurred upon its actual performance. This bleary-eyed aesthetic is an old chestnut of Elvrum’s and he knows how to work it expertly, squeezing every last ounce of naïve energy from each instrument and recording take.
But as much as I’d like to make this about the music, Elvrum continually pushes the lyrical content onto himself or onto Mt. Eerie (the band, the Mt., the whatever he wants it to be). And because Elvrum’s philosophy is a rather muddled one (even with a surfeit explanation bordering on the absurd), it tends to take away from the album at key moments. Musical highlights like the beautifully hummed “How?” are weighed down by Elvrum’s insistence on calling the visible world “the romance” or the unfortunate lyric “Because the pupil of my eye is a hole / There’s no Inside and there’s no Out / The world is in me and I am in the world” from the shimmering “No Inside, No Out.”
With No Flashlight, Elvrum is shifting the focus of his music onto himself. It’s unclear whether this is the smartest move to make, in light of his obvious production mastery. But despite the obvious qualms that this contentious move brings up, No Flashlight leaves me feeling uncomfortable and a little scared—two emotions that I rarely encounter when listening to music anymore. Which is proof of something. I just can’t quite figure it out yet. Maybe it’s in this fold-out somewhere. I’ll get back to you.
Reviewed by: Charles Merwin
Reviewed on: 2005-08-19