What does it mean for journeyman musician and revered songwriter Phil Elverum to make an album under the name The Microphones in 2020? The project Mount Eerie has been his mainstay since the early 2000s. The Microphones began years before and documented some of his earliest work around which his reputation was formed and his role in the lineage of institutions such as K Records and the traditions of what we now know as bedroom pop, lo-fi music, and emo was solidified.
Though other musicians and collaborators factored into The Microphones, as they do in Mount Eerie, these projects have always been Elverum’s above all, focused on his voice and his songwriting, his production, and his performance on various instruments. As he explains near the end of Microphones 2020, The Microphones can’t break up or reunite as long as he is alive, because the band is simply him. In this new album he sings about writing the name The Microphones on a piece of paper and burning it in a frozen cave in Norway to “[make] a boundary between two eras of my life” but goes on to describe it as a “feeble gesture / at making chaos seem organized.”
The chaos here is the act of making music, of presenting your “art project” to the world, and opening up your life to scrutiny in the most vulnerable fashion imaginable. So the return to The Microphones, as he circles around in his lyrics here, is essentially a willful trip back into his own past, letting memories wash over him (and us) from his teenage years in the Pacific Northwest, and his 20s and 30s as a working and touring musician. He documented his more recent life events, including the birth of his child and the devastating loss of his wife Geneviève Castrée in 2016, on the emotionally exhausting and deeply moving Mount Eerie albums A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only. Perhaps it was time to cast his gaze back at the events that came to shape him as a person and a musician, decades before the current era of his life which has been saturated with loss and upheaval.
The accompanying video for Microphones 2020 consists of Elverum placing hundreds and hundreds of photographs of his life, one by one, into the frame, as the lyrics of the song appear on screen. Listening to the music in this format with the visual accompaniment is essential to receive the full impact of the album. “Song” and “album” can be used interchangeably here because the album is one 45-minute song, and not in the CD-era way where many songs might be stitched together into one suite-like track, but in the sense that it really is one song, complete with numerous free-flowing verses and segments that repeat in a loose fashion, but always return to similar cadences and one central chord progression. The holistic oneness of the single-song format is perfect for the nature of this Microphones revival project, as it captures the feeling of interminability, of “there is no end” – a line that Elverum highlights as a central thesis of his work. Kicking off with eight minutes of multi-tracked acoustic guitar strumming that comes to establish a trance-like stasis, Microphones 2020 exists as a sort of primordial pool of memory and confused but hopeful existence, through which a parade of specific remembrances, some even timestamped down to the specific date, flow from Elverum into our headphones.
Elverum’s vocal style in recent Mount Eerie music continues here, a rubato and even-toned delivery that has evolved from his more pop-adjacent, succinct songwriting to a state of extended stanzas and circuitous sentences that seem to run on from line to line, passing through multiple recollections in one phrase or zooming out from the specific to the general on a dime. His cadences here seem to hover in certain clusters of notes, rising up a couple steps on the scale here and there, but coming out mostly in a brand of pleasant monotone that renders his words more legible – almost a spoken-word strategy. Then, when moments hit where a chord changes and his voice flies up into a higher register, it has the effect of a transition from a verse to a chorus, an upheaval in the form of the track, even in the lyrics never repeat and the flow of his words continues in a linear fashion. Then he’ll enter moments that bounce by with a faster, more syncopated rhythm such as the bit at 18:52 – animating the music with an extra layer of urgency, as if to say “here’s a part where the lines don’t have caesuras between them, where the ideas can’t help but pour out of me,” focusing our attention even more.
To try to cherry pick specific parts of Elverum’s gorgeous, winding reflection is in itself a cheapening activity, because the piece generates its power from the sum total of his general existential discussions and the sharpened impact of the specific episodes or events he describes. But there are still moments that leap out from the song as guideposts. He describes seeing the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and afterward, he “[stands] glowing with ideas of what I might try to convey with this music,” and “[decides he] would try to make music that contained this deeper peace.” He sees Stereolab play live in Bellingham, Washington, and in them he sees how the idea of infinity can be conveyed in music, which segues into him describing specific strategies, like taping down keys on a keyboard, that he employed to pursue that infinity. Throughout Microphones 2020, we get a sense of how thoroughly music and its creation has permeated Elverum’s life – from his late nights in the studio, to “work at the record store,” to “static interference from the small AM radio station down the street.” Though the song zooms in and out of different realms of meaning and imagery, from the power of nature, to pondering life and death, the act of making music, loving music, and pursuing a musical career remains at the heart of Elverum’s lived experience.
Aside from the ever-present multi-tracked acoustic guitar, the spare instrumental elements that make up Microphones 2020 appear as flashes of activity that outline certain verses, from walls of distorted bass guitar and thundering drums, to passages of overlaid keyboards and organs. Is it too on-the-nose to imagine that the introduction of these voices imitates a rush of natural forces? They typically arrive in moments in which Elverum takes a minute or so to describe a memory associated with nature, such as a family hike as a child when his parents held his freezing brother over a fire to thaw him, or a moment when he dives deep into a natural pool and goes down to where the water gets cold, or a moment on the roof with his friends as teenagers, as they look up at the moon and try to “blow each other’s minds.” The photos on display on the video hammer home how meaningful a role nature has had in shaping Elverum’s life, as they lead us through serene, snowy tundras, crystalline lakes surrounded by evergreens, rock-dotted hillsides, and empty roads leading through forests.
With the possible exception of Will Oldham (who himself appears in Microphones 2020 in lyrical form during one particularly memorable story) there may not exist a more meaningful body of work within the “singer/songwriter” idiom that encourages listeners to think existentially about life and death, about one’s place in the world and in nature, than Elverum’s. So we must wonder: what it’s like to be at the center of such a body of work – to not only bear one’s life to everyone in all of its uncertainty and confusion, but to be a kind of symbol of exactly that confusion and struggle for so many people? When people write songs that we consider to be “meaningful,” what goes into them? Direct references to political or historical events that situate the songs in a certain place, or give opinions on certain events? This doesn’t happen in Elverum’s work, though the moments that he highlights with specific dates carry all the weight of some heavy political event that would come to shape the world, even though they shaped him personally. Do meaningful songs contain direct discussions of relationships with other people, in which we can find vestiges of our own lives, and say, “I too have felt this way”? This is certainly present in Elverum’s work, but Microphones 2020 seems to turn a corner from that angle of expression, stripping away discussion of relationships with others in favor a deep dive into the self.
When I look at Elverum’s life in these photos, after the first wave of basking in the sheer beauty of his surroundings, and feeling a warm glow of esteem for the environment and the life with family and friends that created led to the development of his musical projects which I have cherished for years, the second wave is one of a kind of muted jealousy. Muted because I know that jealousy itself is a useless and base emotion that always causes more problems than good, but jealousy nonetheless, because I imagine what my life could have been growing up in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest with a family that went on hikes and got stranded in the “winter waves” and drew up fires from driftwood on the beach, and sat squinting out over lakes surrounded by evergreens, and stared out over the snow, blinded by the sunlight reflected in it.
I would never change or trade off the way that I grew up because it made me who I am today, but I also know that I could never have it within me to write music the way that Elverum does, so deeply saturated with the forces of nature and the imagery of the world around him. Of course, I don’t particularly want to write music like Elverum does, but when confronted with the power of his work, it sometimes feels like all other music is less important. I do connect directly, however, when he highlights how other music makes him feel, discussing how seeing Stereolab made him feel like he himself could create eternity, or how the music of his peers and bands like Sonic Youth and Eric’s Trip inspired him. I wonder if I were to try to write “singer/songwriter” music, with an acoustic guitar and my voice, would it have to focus on, say, the vicissitudes of an internet-soaked life, out of necessity? Would it simply be spewing out the names of other bands and artists? What could be the dew-soaked, foggy vista that would inspire me to visit and unpack universal truths? Then again, Elverum has tackled this exact subject in his own work – I think of “Through the Trees, Part 2” from the Mount Eerie album Clear Moon, in which he sings “And it's hard to describe / Without seeming absurd / I know there's no other world / Mountains and websites.” But without the mountains, what are we left with? Just Web sites?
Toward the end of Microphones 2020, Elverum sings: “I heard ‘Freezing Moon’ by Mayhem, and these words jumped out: ‘the cemetery lights up again / eternity opens.’” This moment crystallizes so many aspects of Elverum’s craft into one succinct bit. The referential quality of paying homage to the music that has inspired him emerges with the mention of Mayhem – a particularly bizarre yet somehow fitting choice here, given the band’s history dotted with murder and controversy. The “Freezing Moon” itself alludes to the extreme power of nature and the extreme expression of the humans who perceive it – a constant theme of Elverum’s music. Then we have the cemetery, embodying death, and yet it “lights up again,” placing it within a continuing cycle of darkening and brightening, perhaps from the sun rising above it. And then, of course, we have “eternity” staring at us, opening itself up. We can’t be sure whether it opens to swallow us, or opens to let us in. With Elverum’s work, from the perspective that he outlines over the 45 minute trance-like state established by Microphones 2020, we have to imagine that eternity is opening not to consume humanity, but to warmly embrace us – to remind us that “there is no end.”