April 20, 2008 12:56 AM

As I watched Phil Elverum play a tune, I realized, slowly, by the next tune, that I didn't understand a word of what he sang. Yes, I heard him say, "wind," but what does he mean by it? There seems to be no way for me to know. He uses it so often and so ordinarily that, in his artistic language, it becomes as common and basic as "the." And how do you understand "the?" You can't. It only makes sense in relation to more material things. But we don't know what's real to Phil Elverum. He might say, "wind," over and over, but it's always just a hint at something just outside of my perception. Often I feel like his songs don't so much communicate as float behind him like detritus, in the wake of whatever he does. They don't seem to be goals, but consequences -- of what, only he or his friends can know. In a way, it's actually surprising that he continues to perform, because there is no sense in his work that he tries to include anyone beyond those immediate to him. The only way that people seem to understand his music at all is by virtue of his willingness to share it. I think this in itself is an anomaly, and makes Phil Elverum something of a strange man. Not many of us act the same way in front of our friends as we do in front of an enormous crowd. The fact that Phil Elverum probably wouldn't make his music any differently, whether or not anyone listened, makes him difficult to contemplate in my mind.