Elephant Micah today shared his new song “Eastern Callers,” the spellbinding and fiddle-laced second single from his new album, Vague Tidings, due out April 9th, 2021, via Western Vinyl. Songwriter-producer Joseph O’Connell, who records as Elephant Micah, explains the strange love affair he had in mind when he wrote the song’s lyrics:
This is a song about unrequited love, like ‘Barbara Allen.’ It’s from the perspective of an ordinary Alaskan and he’s singing it to an astronomic/atmospheric phenomenon, the northern lights. He's extremely jealous of the tourists who he thinks, wrongly, are there to derive some kind of procreative luck from the lights. He is also really paranoid about an actual magnetic phenomenon that is slowly changing where the lights appear in the sky. In retrospect, I think this is a song about the widespread modern predicament of needing tourism revenue while also feeling extremely possessive of the thing tourists visit.
The raw inspiration for Vague Tidings came from a 2006 DIY tour of the 49th state. It was a trip that went off the beaten path—sometimes a bit too far for comfort. Now, over a decade later, listeners find O’Connell stationed at a creaky spinet piano, singing about the Alaskan sky. Throughout, his lyrics take a new angle on a pet theme: human encounters with the natural world. Vague Tidings places these encounters in the American West and, at times, in its sci-fi corollary, outer space. Its imagery draws from the allure of Alaska, the idea of Western prosperity, and the human relationship to wilderness more broadly. Often, O’Connell sings about the goal of capturing and commodifying nature. In poetic sketches of resource extraction industries and dark sky tourism, frontier lust runs amok. Pipelines catch fire and stars disappear, all to the tune of a stark, uncanny Americana.
After returning home from this unusual excursion—which had ended up looking like something between a concert tour, a camping trip, and an extended jam session—O’Connell started making songs. “I’d already written about Roman ruins and medieval cathedrals and so forth,” he says. “When I got back from Alaska, I began to draw more from the idea of ‘new worlds’ rather than a European ‘old world.’” This new material expressed itself in metaphors of mountain climbing, gold prospecting, and stellar observation. An American tradition of cowboy bronzes and sublime landscapes tends to glorify Western expansion. For his part, O’Connell intended to cast doubt on it. “What I had in mind, I think, was a kind of song that, instead of celebrating progress, was broadly anxious about where it was leading,” he explains.
Vague Tidings is a sustained, hallucinatory rendering of this theme. In style, its eight songs follow a switchback path between foggy incantations and mountain anthems. Made with a small cohort of acoustic instrumentalists, the record is roughhewn, but easy on the ears. To put Vague Tidings down on tape, O’Connell assembled some of his favorite musicians in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area, where he’s lived since 2015: Libby Rodenbough (Mipso) bows and plucks a detuned fiddle, Matt Douglas (Mountain Goats) breathes life into various woodwinds, and Matt O’Connell (Chorusing, Lean Year) sets the pace on a two-piece drum set. Their loose, imaginative playing pushes Vague Tidings beyond the singer-songwriter genre into something richer in texture. Ultimately, this is foreboding but spacious music, with plenty of room for reconsidering life on earth.