“Music is the language of the spirit,” according to Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran. He’s right— few things can you move you so deeply as a well-written, well-performed song. Music is also the language of our lives. It speaks to our emotions and lived experiences. There’s evidence it can deliver a huge boost to our mental health as well. Music releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical, and new research suggests that it can help fight depression and anxiety.
In the first lockdown, I spent most of my time writing essays for the final year of my undergrad degree. When I wasn’t writing, there wasn’t much else to do. I’m very fortunate to live in the countryside, so in my downtime, that’s where I went. To keep things interesting, I listened to music while I walked. A lot of music. My listening hours on Spotify skyrocketed in 2020. But the combination of nature and music was vital for me to relax and unwind, after a long day of staring at a small screen in a hot room.
My artist of choice? Well, I listened to all sorts, of all genres: playlists sent to me by friends, old artists I’d been listening to for years, new releases by artists I’d been hearing good things about. But there was one artist that I kept coming back to because they captured my feelings at the time between late March and early September.
That artist was Phil Elverum, also known as Mount Eerie, also known as The Microphones.
Elverum’s work has always been a little off the beaten track. I’ve never heard his songs on the radio and I doubt I ever will. His music is “Lo-fi”, very acoustic and raw. It relies on shimmering layered acoustic guitars, distorted bass, steel drums, and of course, Phil’s paper-thin, delicate, almost adolescent sounding voice. The magic of his music is that it sounds so amateur, with its distortion, lack of polish, and the occasional off-beat melodies, and yet when it all comes together, it becomes seamless, lively, professional.
Elverum gained fame in the late 90s while recording under the moniker The Microphones, with his seminal album The Glow pt. 2 (2001). The album can be interpreted as an escape from the city to nature, starting with I Want Wind to Blow, which laments the “smell of bars”, and “the awful feeling of electric heat”. Later, in The Moon, Elverum returns to a place he once visited with an old flame (“foggy air and the wind and the mountain top… I went back and felt regret”).
Despite all the horrible things happening around the world at the moment, I felt truly calmed
What spoke to me about Elverum’s music so much in that time was how intrinsically linked it is to nature. His lyrics are full of references to swaying trees, gusts of “solar” wind, “mountainous peaks”, “distant foothills” in the “swelling dark”. The instruments reflect the lyrics perfectly; the manic drums and buzzing chords of I Want To Be Cold mirror the thunderstorm that the narrator feels is overwhelming him. In You’ll Be In The Air, the arpeggios of guitars that slowly ascend in pitch make you feel as though you are being gently carried away, like a leaf on the wind.
I have been a fan of his for a few years now, but his work felt so much more relevant to me, at a time when I and a lot of others were spending so much extra time outside and in nature due to COVID restrictions.
Elverum released a new album in August, The Microphones in 2020, an album consisting of one 40-minute-long song. The song looks back at his recording career, focusing on the time when he was still writing under the “Microphones” name. In it, we come to understand his development as an artist. We also learn why his work has such a strong connection with nature— halfway through, he sings,
“Is it because my parents barely had any money
And preferred to leave the baby in the garden
That I grew up to blur the boundary
Between myself and the actual churning dirt of this place?
That it feels normal to me to speak with the voice of weather
To build and move into a mirage
Made of songs cascading down a rock face in a homemade myth?”
Lyrics like these made me take another look at my surroundings as I walked. I noticed things I’d barely looked at before, the shining of the placid lake beside the path, the swaying breeze, the smell of the trees and flowers. I even took my shoes off on one walk, so I could feel the warm dirt of a path fermented by the golden sun.
Elverum’s music gave me a much greater feeling of relaxation than a walk normally would. And despite all the horrible things happening around the world at the moment, and the stresses and anxiety of the mountain of work I still had left to do, I felt truly calmed. The beauty of his music inspired a passion within me, to understand his perspective as an artist, the meaning behind his lyrics and the complexity of his art. At a time when there might not be as much to do, it’s important to have things that you feel truly passionate about to give you a reason to keep moving forward.
It’s lockdown once again, and once again it seems like everyone’s mental health is taking a beating. My advice is to get some rest, exercise— and find an album, or an artist, to get you through each day.