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.”
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