8 Essential Tracks From Michelle Williams' Songwriter Husband Phil Elverum
Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams revealed in a Vanity Fair cover story released Thursday (July 26) that she’d “quietly married” cult singer-songwriter Phil Elverum, best known for recording and performing as The Microphones and Mount Eerie. A native of Anacortes, Washington, Elverum previously worked within the sphere of Olympia’s K Records collective before beginning his own label and distro, P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd. And the discography he amassed since the mid-’90s is commensurately cinematic and intimate. Dive into any era or record, and you may pick up on a deeply felt, acoustic meditation on mortality, a roaring black metal guitar or a drone that unspools for miles.
The results would be more than enough for any songwriter to hang his or her hat on, whether it be front-to-back classics like 2001’s The Glow, Pt. 2 or more inaccessible curios like 2005’s No Flashlight: Songs of the Fulfilled Night. Yet, unforeseen tragedy was ahead -- and it arguably divided his work into two.
Elverum’s cartoonist and musician wife of 13 years, Geneviève Castrée, died in 2016 after a diagnosis of inoperable pancreatic cancer, an incalculable loss that immediately appeared in his subsequent album, A Crow Looked at Me. Recorded quietly, acoustically, in the center of grief, using his late wife’s instruments in the room in which she drew her last breath, it resonated as his most jaw-droppingly personal -- and courageous -- work.
From those somber songs began an unforeseen commercial ascent. Suddenly, the songwriter appeared in The New York Times, GQ and Marc Maron’s WTF? podcast. To catch one of Elverum’s stark live performances surrounding Crow and its even-better follow-up Now Only was a strange, jarring spectacle. Chances are you haven’t paid a full ticket price for an evening of molasses-paced songs about, among other subjects, throwing out your late spouse’s toothbrush.
In a whole career of self-reinvention, Elverum found a new voice, this time in the face of tragedy that could easily have finished a person off. And his high-profile new marriage will surely bring an entirely new audience to his stunning body of work. Here are eight excellent tracks to begin your dive into Elverum’s songbook.
The Microphones — “The Pull” (from It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, 2000)
Elverum’s earliest work as The Microphones is pretty inaccessible, collagist stuff, mostly reflecting a mind keenly interested in probing the borders of noise, melody and sound with ordinary instruments and recording equipment. His first great album, The Microphones’ It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, is where the light first shines through. The papery nylon strings and lurching guitar fuzz on that album’s opener, “The Pull,” sum up Elverum’s idiosyncratic, explorative approach back in 2000.
The Microphones — “Headless Horseman” (from The Glow, Pt. 2, 2001)
A sequel to a song that ended up being a whole album, The Glow, Pt. 2 is the first all-the-way-there, stone-classic Elverum delivered for K Records in 2001. Pretty much anything a new listener could grow to like about The Microphones is represented on that one -- lonesome ballads, bristling noise, wild and weird mixes throughout. In the midst of all the noise, the delicate “Headless Horseman” remains his best breakup ballad ever: “If you swing again, I’ll duck/ And I wish you best of luck."
The Microphones — “Don’t Smoke” (from Don’t Smoke/Get Off the Internet 7”, 2007)
Though it’s hit some hard times from its recent business practices, Elverum’s old home of K Records, at its prime, stood for radical community spirit with strong self-improvement principles. These themes show up in some of Elverum’s tunes. “Don’t Smoke” was released as a double A-side in 2007 with the equally, hilariously strident “Get Off the Internet.” The former is his Minor Threat moment; he rants and chides over ripping power chords.
Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire — “Lost Wisdom” (from Lost Wisdom, 2008)
2008’s Lost Wisdom was a quick collaboration between Elverum, guitarist Fred Squire and singer Julie Doiron, literally the result of a productive tour stop. Despite -- or because of -- its low-key, spare setting, Wisdom is one of Elverum’s most captivating works to date. Part of the reason is camaraderie: Doiron was the singer of Eric’s Trip, a cult Canadian band that Elverum frequently cited at the time as his number one influence. The two almost couldn’t click better; the title track is a hymnal, sonorous meditation on waves and decay and mortality.
Mount Eerie — “Ocean Roar” (from Ocean Roar, 2012)
Elverum’s excellent pair of 2012 albums, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, allowed him to stretch out to new corners of his sound. The clattery, dense Roar is the best of the two; it contains some of his strangest, foggiest atmosphere and even a rare cover: Popol Vuh’s “Engel Der Luft” from the Herzog film Fitzcarraldo. Roar majestically conjures mist and fog and swells throughout, but it’s just as powerful when it pulls back; the woozy, lovely title track is a respite from the storm.
Mount Eerie — “Pumpkin” (from Sauna, 2014)
Elverum described 2014’s unfairly overlooked Sauna as the “ultimate Mount Eerie album” in its press release -- and there’s something to that. Indeed, Sauna gasps and hisses at its borders, sometimes exploding to Wagnerian levels or suddenly, unpredictably shrinking itself down. “Pumpkin” is a great example of this, with nondescript lyrics about walking to the bookstore and looking at a piece of pumpkin among rocks and sea-foam, reaching climactic, heart-tugging heights in the music. There was hardly anywhere the Mount Eerie project could go from the brain-breaking ambition of Sauna; it would take the ground falling away.
Mount Eerie — “Swims” (from A Crow Looked at Me, 2017)
A Crow Looked at Me is the most devastatingly plain collection of songs Elverum ever wrote -- and his most critically acclaimed release to date. Gone is anything grand or philosophical, in favor of worryingly up-close portraits of Elverum’s life after the death of his first wife, Geneviève. The haunting “Swims” contains some of the roughest existential mic-drops of the entire program -- a dying counselor, a question from his toddler daughter -- over barely there electric guitar.
Mount Eerie — “Distortion” (from Now Only, 2018)
While its death-focused predecessor, A Crow Looked at Me, is essentially a one-and-done emotional blast, Now Only is a portrait of Elverum a year after the loss. Simply from that distance, it’s an even stronger listen: rich, nuanced, uncompromisingly dense. For an artist who has conjured such an array of think-pieces, this is rather unreviewable music, or rather music that reviews itself. Simply let this 11-minute ballad unravel and get lost in Elverum’s grappling with his past, his present, and what to do about death. There’s a pregnancy scare and a series of clues about his past in The Microphones and references to Tarzan and Jack Kerouac. Step inside his world.