Review Summary: An Inspiring Mess
Let me be blunt – Tests
is a mess. It’s not all that surprising given that the project is a mishmash of Phil Elverum’s pre-1998 experiments, messily stapled together with cracks clearly showing. Indeed, the clue is in the title; this does feel more like a collection of tests than an album, tests that don’t always appear to produce the results likely intended. Yet although clumsy and unpolished, the project is a fascinating listen for the insight it provides into the evolving artistic mind behind The Microphones.
When one pries open Tests
, it can feel like one has opened a notebook of Phil’s, the listener privy to his rough and skeletal doodles, the precursors to the man’s more realised works. Instrumentally and aesthetically it’s largely familiar, from the dark-but-bubbly ‘Like a Piranha’ to the cushy ‘Feedback Love’ and foggy thicket of ‘Wires and Chords’. Such passages feel like comforting shadows of the Phil many have come to love, entwined with glimpses of an alternative character: the Phil that could have been. We see this unfamiliar Elverum channel his inner Daniel Johnston in the subtle and eerie ‘Tape Deck Ghost’ and ‘Little Songs’, interspersed with unsettling detours into the realms of the electronic in ‘Soundwaves’ and ‘Monsters’. Whilst quite disparate individuals, both Phils revel in shared lyrical obscurity, ever obtuse in their ramblings about life, recording equipment (yeah, it’s a bit odd), and Elverum himself. The “album” is thus as alien as it is familiar, flitting between the Phil that thrived and the Phil that faltered.
When listening to Tests
, its can be quite inspiring to think that a mere 3 years of tinkering and maturation would cause such haphazardly scattered ideas to evolve into the harrowing monolith of The Glow Pt2
. It’s equally fascinating to realise that with a few different creative choices the Phil many love today could have easily never come to fruition, replaced by the glitchy, reclusive oddball occasionally revealed here. Of course I’m stating the obvious, highlighting an idea of fragility universal to artistry, but the feeling of ‘what if’ demonstrated and demarcated so vividly in Tests
is quite wonderful to behold. This, I believe, is what makes such a nonsensical hodgepodge of ideas an essential listen for any Phil fan. In spite of its flaws, it’s an enlightening and thought-provoking mess well worth wading into.