There’s a new documentary about Phil Elverum up on his YouTube channel, directed by Mattias Evangelista and with cinematography by Riley Donavan. It’s a really beautiful piece of work, documenting life more than anything, albeit through that Twin Peaks haze that Elverum has become so well-known for translating through his music and Tarkovsky-esque photography. It’s not so much a documentary about his work, in that regard, as the strange and elusive source material that he draws upon so wonderfully.
I watched the documentary not long after I received the bank-and-back-breaking delivery of Elverum’s recent retrospective Microphones boxset, completely everything, 1996-2021. I felt like an idiot for buying it at first. I already own half the records inside, and set about selling some of the ones I was set to duplicate, but there was something about it all coming boxed together I couldn’t resist.
I sat thinking about this for a while, trying to rationalise the purchase. As a teenager, I was already a bit of an Elverum completist, spending all my money on shipments from the Pacific Northwest, ending up with a lot of Microphones and Mount Eerie stuff in duplicate or triplicate — that is, until a few years ago, when it was time to make some space and the inflated Discogs prices were hard to ignore when I didn’t have a job anymore…
But that was always the joy of Elverum’s work, in lots of ways. The impetus wasn’t so much on me wanting to “have it all”, but rather on the shifting nature of the work itself. Though Elverum has put a lot of emphasis on the fact that he is both resurrecting and putting to bed an old project, for someone who lived through these releases the first time round, nothing about this feels retrospective — or rather, it feels no more retrospective than the first time these records were released.
All of Elverum’s work exists as a kind of living archive, with each new book or record or reissue not simply repeating and once again making available what was already in circulation, but throwing stuff back up in the air, putting it in tension with itself.
This was most obvious with an album like Mount Eerie’s No Flashlight. I bought the Guinness Book of Records “largest album cover” edition when it came out in 2005. Then, in 2008, a new “zine” edition appeared, which, Elverum explained, served “as a way of using up the remaining 114 records [from the ’05 edition] that had no corresponding poster/covers.” So a facsimile of the giant poster cover was Xeroxed together and new record covers were made with a beautifully tactile screen-printing process on the reverse of much old record covers. (Mine was printed on the “inside” of sleeve for the 2005 EP “SINGERS”.) It wasn’t a new edition, nor was it really a new pressing of the vinyl, but a way of making something new out of a something that was still left lying around.
This is what makes so much of the work still feel so alive. With so much of his output being autobiographical — or at the very least clearly informed or emerging from the habitual documentation by his own experiences — it has never felt like his own life was at risk of being exhausted. Indeed, to exhaust his own life, to be a completist about his own archive, would surely be to snuff it out.
I think this is why my “collection”, as it were, has always been shifting these last few years. At some point, I did regret getting rid of a lot of the stuff I’d collected over the years, but then I just indulged in reissues again. In fact, there’s something quite unique about Phil’s output. For all the Discogs fetishism around first pressings or whatever, Phil’s wholly bucks the trend. In most instances — excluding a few releases, like that first No Flashlight release — each reissue often feels like the best edition of that record yet. It’s out with the old and in with the new. For the presentation nerd, more so than the music nerd, every edition feels like an improvement on all the novel processes used previously. It’s Phil’s opportunity to flex as he gets better and better at his craft, not just as a musician but as a photographer, a designer, an artist, a curator of his own life. It’s a kind of industrial music in that regard, that takes such care over the production of objects but without the romanticism often attributed to vinyl in our postmodern age. These records are beautiful things in much the same way mountains are beautiful and websites are beautiful.
“There’s no end” is a perfect title for this new documentary, with all of this in mind. There’s no clear beginning either. The advancement of the past into the present creates a kind of twisted temporality that becomes more and more relatable the older I get and life gets more and more complicated; as the past has more of a bearing on the present, and the new tricks and lessons learned allow the past to be better understood and presented. It is a process that is far from complacent but wrestles with itself, denaturalising the enforced nostalgia of the present precisely by entangling itself with nature more broadly. The “natural” is not romanticised or fetishised in this sense but endlessly complexified, like a Spinozist or Stoic vision of the world around us, that is not totalising but responsive, as we should be.
By way of an errant conclusion, in looking through the beautiful book of scraps and notes and ticket stubs and artwork Phil presents with the boxset, I found what looks like an old business card / flyer, advertising the then-forthcoming Microphones record, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. In the bottom left, there is contact information for Phil’s musical home at that time, K Records.
Olympia, Wash. 98507
I had never noticed this before… Now I’m curious, at least in terms of my own life, which k-punk came first… Certainly K Records, but then maybe one k-punk implicitly lead to the other… Mountains and websites… Mountains and websites…