After he finished performing “My Chasm,” with it’s ending line “Death is real,” Phil Elverum took in the applause wistfully and then started talking to the crowd with a kind of resigned chuckle. “This is kind of fucked up, isn’t it? I mean, I’m here telling you Death is real and you’re applauding.” It was one of many moments that revealed that whatever headspace Elverum is in these days, it is the same kind of observant and sensitive perspective that fans of his art have come to expect.
I suspect many people came to the show on Monday at Mississippi Studios expecting to cry. And while that certainly happened, with many songs punctuated by sniffles from the crowd and people wiping away tears, there were also moments of unexpected laughter. During the new song he opened with, “Distortion,” which included a reflection on the fatherhood of Jack Kerouac, there was a line about a deadbeat dad. “Dead beat dad…get it?”
Those light moments were islands in a sea of collective melancholy, as we all watched a very sweet and humble artist perform his new album about his beloved and dead wife, from start to finish, with just his voice and an acoustic guitar between him and a sea of bodies reacting to his words. At one point he stopped again to address the fact that since his tour had moved north from California to Oregon, there were now people in the audience that actually knew his wife, and it was heavier and stranger to perform the material. “Sorry for doing this to you.” Another chuckle from the audience, who were willing participants.
No need to be sorry at all for Elverum, who has made one of the best albums in recent memory, a personal and raw elegy that has affected so many who have heard it. After the final song, “Tintin in Tibet,” a recounting of some of their first days together, Elverum left the stage and the lights came on, and all around there were people milling towards the door and embracing. For those who would put this album in a box and simply declare it as one of the best purely sad albums in recent memory, this is a counter-example, of a piece of work that will not only draw tears but force us to look around at the world, at what we have, about what we have to lose, about what we cherish, and hopefully inspire us to cherish and appreciate our moments here even more.
Fans who showed up early also got to see a master at work with cellist Lori Goldston providing a set of emotional and well-crafted instrumental music. A Pacific Northwest fixture, Goldston weaved droning soundscapes and finger-plucked passages together in musical movements that were somber, yearning, and thoughtful. It is difficult to think of anything more musically appropriate to open for a singer about to pour his broken heart out over the crowd.