Wabi-sabi is a term that’s difficult to translate into English. The Japanese aesthetic, loosely defined as the beauty found in imperfection, simplicity, and impermanence also connotes the exquisite loneliness of living out in nature, and probably extends into mainstream American culture about as far as a Pottery Barn catalog.
Ironic then that a musical ambassador of a genuine wabi-sabi perspective should come to Santa Barbara in the form of an American songwriter who’s touring alongside a Tokyo-based indie rock band. Having been in his first car accident only four days beforehand - declaring himself to be “screwed” in every way except the physical - Phil Elverum stopped quietly by Muddy Waters on Tuesday, October 9 to play two shows’ worth of material in support of his latest project, Mount Eerie Parts 6 & 7. The finished product is a huge book of photographs that Elvrum described as the “visual counterpart to pretty much the entire catalog of The Microphones and Mount Eerie, spanning almost a decade;” one which includes a 4-song EP that’s intended to be the sequel to The Microphones’ 2003 Mount Eerie.
Opening for him was the Japanese trio Moools, whose limited English vocabulary didn’t keep them from connecting with their audience through their remarkably American sound. Layered with solid, but diverse, rhythms and a guitar/bass combo that always drove shoe-gaze-steady, Moools ripped the little cafe to harmonious shreds.
Following the set, Elverum took it down about 20 notches, inviting his audience to sit down on the floor and get comfortable as he gave his performance like story hour at the public library. Interacting with him on this intimate level intensified the sense one gets that Elverum’s songs are simply the spontaneous utterance of his thought process - as natural to him as humming to oneself. It is the thought process of a person whose deep-rooted connection with nature shapes how he identifies himself, whose constant companions are the mountains, the moon, the trees, and the rivers. In it, sadness seems always present, but not overwhelming, often making room for warmth, light, love, and a quiet sense of content. And while Elverum’s lyrics are insistently questioning things - even in the presence of comfort and happiness - he usually comes to rest on acceptance. Mount Eerie exemplified for Santa Barbara the foundation of wabi-sabi as explained by author Richard R. Powell: the show “[acknowledged] three simple realities:nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Well, it was almost perfect.