Not Mt. Erie or the Mountain of Purgatory, but certainly mythical. (Credit: Will Sewell)
Microphones in 2020, an ‘album’ that is really just one 45-minute song, and The Divine Comedy, a three-volume work of poetry by an Italian who died in 1321, may sound like unapproachable museum pieces, accompanied by signs that read ‘abandon all hope of not being utterly pretentious, ye who consume’. But in our current world, whose rapid events and repetitive life create an uncomfortable dissonance for many, I have found them essential.
The works have more in common than you might think of two pieces of art separated by mediums, worldviews, oceans and centuries, and in turn the authors have plenty in common with you and I. Abandon that hope and let them change your outlook on art and life–or just let them bring a little peace amidst the chaos.
To make a short story long…
Phil Elverum is from Anacortes, a town on a small island in the upper left corner of the United States. I live on another island a little bit to the south, and had never heard of him until I met a guy in a pub in Bristol who told me that his favourite band was called Mount Eerie, fronted by a guy called Phil.
I typed ‘Mount Erie’ into Spotify. I had been to the top of Mt. Erie, which overlooks Anacortes— I was confident I had it…
“No, with two E’s,” the guy insisted, indignant.
The album I am recommending was recorded under the name of Elverum’s other band, The Microphones. Confused? Good, I was as well.
Dante Alighieri is a more familiar name, and, mercifully, he sticks to that one when he writes. His Commedia— better known as the Divine Comedy—is the most famous work in the Italian language. He is synonymous with Florence, poise and drama.
The Commedia is split into three parts—Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), and in total has one hundred canti, or songs. Phil Elverum’s Microphones in 2020 is just one song, a little shy of 45 minutes. Despite their different ideas of what constitutes structural precision (why didn’t you just make it an hour, Phil?) I believe they have a lot in common.
For one thing, they share a love of dramatic openings:
“The glory of the One Who moves all things / penetrates all the universe, reflecting…” begins Dante in the Paradiso, the final volume of the Commedia (Mark Musa’s translation).
“The true state of all things,” announces Elverum in the first line of Microphones in 2020.
These heavy lines set up simple and disarming observations:
“…in one part more and in another less,” Dante tells us.
“I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising,” Elverum notices.
Simple, almost obvious realities.
This is the power of these two works, and these two poets: the Commedia and Microphones in 2020 are both situated, ordinary vision and strange, enchanting poetry. They bring heaven (and hell, and purgatory) to illuminate our earth.
Dante and Elverum cast themselves as the protagonist of their own epics—“homemade myth,” as Elverum calls it. They can see that their lives were a kind of unfinished allegory, that all lives are allegory, and they use their art to try to understand it because they are compelled to, not for ego.
“I will never stop writing this song,” Phil sings. And why should he? The myth of life is not finished just because you say so— that is, at least, unless you’re Dante, and you have sped along the process a bit and pre-emptively granted yourself the Beatific Vision (sorry, spoiler). And even then, the future is uncertain, the past difficult, the present piercing (“in one part more and another less“). To them, there is no ‘normality,’ only this.
The works are metapoetic—self-referential, poetry about poetry, allegory about life, lives about allegory.
This does not stop them from engaging with particulars. Making myth at home means using what is around. You cannot mind tripping up over references to salal, Bellingham and Olympia (all evocative to Northwesterners) in Microphones in 2020 and Mantua and Count So-and-So in the Commedia (I am sure they were resonant to 14-century Italians).
It would do no good for me to describe the works’ style, only what they help create– you should see for yourself.
What to listen to, watch and read.
I highly recommend watching the video that accompanies Microphones in 2020. Elverum manages to make placing polaroids on a table for 45 minutes straight its own kind of poetry. If you don’t want to start with that, my favourite (regular size) tracks by Elverum are ‘Real Lost Wisdom’, ‘The Mansion’, and, of course, ‘The Glow, Pt. 2’. In a similar vein are Adrianne Lenker’s ‘Songs‘, Fleet Foxes’ ‘Crack-Up‘, and ‘Sainte Patronne De Rien Pantoute’ (‘Patron Saint of Nothing At All’) by Elverum’s late wife, Geneviève. Lastly, my sister told me Microphones in 2020 reminded her of an amazing (and confusing) exhibit by Ragnar Kjartansson that we saw at the San Francisco MOMA called The Visitors, and I have to agree.
The Commedia can be found online (some of the translations are bad, beware) or at bookshops, usually with commentary. I bought mine at Bloom & Curll in Bristol for £2.50. Reading it is enough work on its own, but William Blake and Botticelli made numerous artworks depicting it, and Hieronymus Bosch can provide some inspiration if you are struggling with the visuals.
Article by Will Sewell