Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003
ll right, so maybe Mt. Eerie was a bit of a disaster. Lord knows I wished it not to be—It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water and The Glow, Pt. 2 are still two of the best indie releases of this young decade, and conceptually, Mt. Eerie seemed like the culmination of all Phil Elvrum and company had been working up to with those albums. But in spite of all Phil’s (ambition? pretension?) and good intentions, Mt. Eerie lacked listenability, exchanging the intimacy and quivering intensity of The Glow, Pt. 2 for a deafening, relentless sense of grandeur that ended up working against the album. The absence of Mt. Eerie from most critical year-end lists, despite its initial considerable acclaim, supports this position—most critics, like myself, most likely were initially blown away by the scope of Mt. Eerie, but afterwards, quickly saw through the bombast and found that was not much there to come back to—and once again, like myself, have not even listened to it since last January.
So now there is Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003—most likely the last album that Phil will release under the Microphones moniker—and seemingly, not a moment too soon. A stripped down sound has frequently fitted the Microphones well (especially on their definitive moment, the Song Islands version of “The Moon,” one of the most harrowingly intimate songs since the demise of Nick Drake), and would be the perfect antithesis to the over-stuffed mess that was Mt. Eerie. And, in fact, Live in Japan sounds great—enveloped in fabulous acoustics that make the album sound like Phil’s Trinity Sessions. But one listen through Live in Japan (which—a run through of the old standards never being enough for the Microphones—consists solely of new compositions) reveals that the production wasn’t the only flaw in Mt. Eerie—it’s Phil’s songcraft that has really slipped.
Live in Japan starts out rather well—“Great Ghosts” and “The Blow Pt. 2”are both gorgeous Phil + guitar pieces, tenderly plucked and sensitively performed, with typically haunted and unselfconscious lyrics that shows great promise for fulfilled expectations for the rest of the album. “Universe Conclusion” isn’t bad either—a schizophrenic epic that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Mt. Eerie (and with a title to match), but a bit more interesting than most of the tedious bores on that album—and assistance from the heavenly baritone of Calvin Johnson never hurts.
It’s all downhill from these three, however, the lowest valley being the one-minute, dashed off covers of standards “My Favorite Things” and “Silent Night.” These re-interpretations (with Elvrum-ized lyrics, of course) have unclear purpose—whether they are meant as ironic revisions, straight tributes, or bad jokes is never really evident. The audience on the album is similarly confused, obviously uncertain as to if they should be laughing, applauding, or simply standing in deference. Placed in the center of the album, these not-so-clever revisions kill any momentum Live in Japan had, and give the album an air of unwanted and unintentional smugness.
After those, there’s not much of a point in listening any further. The rest of the songs are short, Elvrum-by-numbers pieces with quirky titles (“I have been told that my skin is exceptionally smooth.” being a personal favorite) that might get you thinking about how Phil’s natural, primitive, ambiguous lyrical themes—once so magically metaphorical that they sounded positively confessional—now sound trite and boring. Much of the time, it feels like Phil is making up the lyrics as he goes along—and in reality, he very well might be—and make the album more irritating than anything else. You almost wish for some of Mt. Eerie’s soupy production quirks to distract from his lyrics—a sad, sad state of affairs.
I feel about The Glow, Pt. 2 the way that many feel about In The Aeroplane Over the Sea—that it is a truly singular, poetic work filled with incredible passion and gorgeous music and lyrics that define the word intimacy. But Live in Japan makes me wonder if maybe Jeff Mangum made the right decision when he decided not to make any more music after Aeroplane—if you have a work as singular as that, then following up the work with only lesser variations of itself will do nothing but tarnish its legacy. Perhaps it’s advice that Phil Elvrum should learn to heed.