Album Review: The Microphones – Microphones in 2020

[P. W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.; 2020]

The true state of all things: Phil Elverum does not care about your expectations or preconceived notions. Earlier this year, when he announced he would be releasing an album under the moniker The Microphones for the first time in 17 years, he pretty explicitly stated that the name meant nothing and it would be a continuation of the same long river of work he has been creating his whole life. But, people hear what they want to hear, and there was significant hype around the ‘return’ to his former project. Let’s put this bluntly then: this is not The Microphones, this is not The Glow pt. 3 – this is Microphones in 2020.

What’s even stranger about fans’ fixation on the project’s name is that there was no real significant stylistic shift between The Microphones’ 2003 album Mount Eerie and the follow-up records released under the name Mount Eerie – they just continued to follow Elverum’s singular wonts. Over the course of a dozen or more releases under the two names between 1999 and 2015, Elverum built up quite a mythos through his elemental and esoteric music, aided by a shifting band of collaborators (many of whom were fictional), which was transmitted from the fantastically rustic-sounding city of Anacortes, Washington.

Things could have continued that way forever. Elverum’s spiritual connection with the natural world seemed to yield endless inspiration – but the 2016 death of Geneviève Castrée, his wife and mother of his child, was the first time there was a true seismic shift in his foundations. If a barrier is to be drawn between periods of his work, this is clearly the place. The following Mount Eerie albums A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only were skeletal, rarely more than a guitar and his voice – and he decided “when real death enters your life all poetry is dumb.” Instead, he cathartically and vividly relived the final weeks of Geneviève’s life and the protracted mourning period afterwards. This gave us a clear and unvarnished view of him – not The Microphones, not Mount Eerie, not any of the other projects he’s been associated with, but Phil Elverum the man – and his real grief.

Thus, in the Testament of Elverum, the Crow-era albums form the New Testament; the story of his life in the last five years. This makes Microphones in 2020 the Book of Genesis, written as an account of the creation of his musical universe in his late teens and early 20s. Now Only saw him reflect on his younger self a little, comparing his youthful wildness to Tarzan and Walt Whitman, but Microphones in 2020 delves deeper, giving us a more primordial origin story. Or maybe it’s just one long 45-minute song written to prove that the moniker The Microphones means nothing.

Microphones in 2020 is a meditation on the idea that all of Elverum’s work from day one has been one long un-ending song stretched out into a river. The extended, single song begins with seven and a half minutes of the same pattern of acoustic chords repeating. Musically, this introduces the river of song concept; each strum is anew but the melody remains the same, much like a river is continually new droplets but they all pass the same bends, resulting in constant but fluid image. Elverum’s work up to and including Microphones in 2020 has been a constant but fluid image of him as an artist.

When Elverum does start singing, it seems a continuation of where he left off with the last Mount Eerie release Lost Wisdom pt. 2; a simple folk song. He pontificates on his continued existence, the “countless sunrises”, and, despite accepting the futility of trying to return to a former self, he decides to look back and attempt to “draw a map that leads to now.”

He first gives an overview of his early 20s self, an electric guitar wakes up as he tells us how “I took my breakfast to the couch on the porch of the punk house,” and “I checked like once a week,” with drums kicking in at the first mention of the band’s name, mirroring his youthful excitement at musical creation. There’s also an extended discussion of seeing a matinee showing of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was apparently a huge inspiration. But this is all preamble to the main thrust of the piece: “now I circle back to look into the spring.”

Elverum has been known to frequently revisit his earlier work, hence so many “pt. 2”s in his catalogue, but the following core segment of Microphones in 2020 is much more direct in its connection to the past, and might be the closest we ever get to an autobiography. Musically, too, he links the various eras described with sounds that are reminiscent of his work at that time, as if he’s reliving memories of his artistic evolution.

Without straying into over-romanticisation, Elverum simply details some of the crucial elements of The Microphones’ quiet creation: “I put the name “the Microphones” on the tapes I would make late at night after work at the record store,” he describes over delicately arranged layers of guitar. “I loved recording and the equipment seemed to be living and it sang to me like static interference from the small AM radio station down the street.”

The scene shifts as distorted waves of static surge up out of the ether, driving Elverum to then delve deeper into his artistic gestation and re-live his discovery of feedback: “I saw Stereolab in Bellingham and they played one chord for 15 minutes / Something in me shifted / I brought back home a belief I could create eternity.” Buffeted by continued waves of metallic noise, he strives for something even more intangible: “Is it because my parents barely had any money and preferred to leave the baby in the garden that I grew up to blur the boundary between myself and the actual churning dirt of this place?” He then goes “even deeper back into the mist” to describe an instance on a family trip when his kid brother got soaked in the rain and his parents stripped him off and held him above a fire to dry him – “surely this experience explains something about whoever it was that sang all these songs.”

It’s truly one of the most impactful segments of music Elverum has ever recorded, but with Microphones in 2020 there is no option to easily skip back and enjoy it – the river continues flowing, and this is only the halfway point.

After the distortion fades, the screen is wiped by a return to placidity and a description of a night swim. Little plinks of piano reflect off the water’s dark surface, and the steady chug of the guitar drops away for a moment to be replaced by a soothing silver drone while he simply floats, staring up at the sky.

When Elverum returns to land we’re into the heart of his time as The Microphones, when he and his friends would “go up to the roof at night and actually contemplate the moon.” Here the music starts to move into the kind of expansive post-folk that characterised his later releases as The Microphones. Along with this terrestrial rumbling comes a lot more awareness of mortality: “All the layers of life glint in my flashing eye simultaneously, and at any moment we could die… the rippling uncertainty beneath our bones is still the true state of all things.”

What follows is more musing on the meaning of being in a band and listeners’ fixation on the people behind the music, and his predilection to dabble in “cultivated ambiguity about participants’ identities.” This leads him to tell of the dissolution of his one-person band: “At the very end of 2002 I took the Microphones name and crumpled it up and burned it in a cave on the frozen edge of Northern Norway.” Whether this is a true story or pure mythology, it sure sounds epic – and then in true Elverum style he immediately undercuts it: “I made a boundary between two eras of my life, a feeble gesture at making chaos seem organized.”

As Microphones in 2020 draws to its conclusion, everything recedes except for the continuing current of acoustic chords and Elverum’s voice. He contemplates the genesis and standing of his work, and the meanings and lore that people attach to it. Moreover, he expresses his gratitude for how music has shaped and defined his life: “I will never stop singing this song, it goes on forever / I started when I was a kid and I still want to hold it lightly,” he sings thankfully as light splashes of piano and crackling atmospherics slip into the stream, “this luxurious privilege to sit around frowning and wondering what it means / playing with words and trying to prove that names mean nothing.”

Indeed, Microphones in 2020 does prove that names mean nothing, but creation means everything, and with those tenets setting the course Elverum has produced one of his defining works here. It is a monumental piece that dextrously straddles his musical epochs; it is an account of history and a document of where he is now. Ultimately, it proves that no matter what stylistic shifts, name changes, births, deaths, divorces, or whatever else may come, his river of song will flow on. There’s no end.