Title: Microphones in 2020
Artist: The Microphones
Label: P. W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.
Genre: Folk / Rock / Spoken Word
Released: 07 August 2020
microphones in 2020
"Anyway, every song I've ever sung is about the same thing:
Standing on the ground looking around, basically
And if there have to be words, they could just be:
"Now only" and "There's no end"
Back in 2002, after the release of The Microphones’ final studio album, Phil Elverum decided to abandon this initial project and instead start working under the name “Mount Eerie”. It was a relatively arbitrary decision, considering he was the only member of the band, but it was still designed to mark a distinct turning point in his music. Since then he’s taken on a few stylistic shifts, such as the 2009 black metal inspired “Winds Poem”, but for the most part Phil’s lyrical style remained consistent in the change from The Microphones to Mount Eerie. His music evoked a sense of grandeur; whether it was from the huge sounds he created through walls of distortion, or his mythical style of writing, there was something seemingly larger than life about Phil’s music. But after the tragic loss of his wife to cancer in 2017, “A Crow Looked at Me” was released, and to this day is by far the most devastating and difficult album I’ve ever listened to.
The grandiosity of Phil’s writing disappeared completely with “A Crow Looked at Me”, and was instead replaced with bleak spoken-word passages delivered over sparse instrumentals. And this is the moment that really marks the change in his music. While his transition between projects 15 years earlier had been an organised shift, this was something far more jarring and intense. It was clear that this awful tragedy had completely changed his perspective on life, and that no matter what name Phil decided to work under in the future, his music was never going to be quite the same. And he often acknowledges this throughout his later releases, discussing his older work with a newfound sense of clarity. Where he used to talk about death and mortality as an almost-mythical concept that inspired awe, he instead recognises it as the crushing inevitability that it is.
“When I was younger and didn't know
I used to walk around basically begging the sky
For some calamity to challenge my foundation
When I was young
So imagine what it was like to watch up close a loved one die
And then look into the pit
I lived on the edge of it
And had to stay there”
‘Belief’ – Mount Eerie, “Lost Wisdom, Pt. 2”
It’s with this return to his original Microphones name that Phil fully discusses these ideas. In this sprawling 45-minute-long poem, he delivers an autobiographical look into the progression of his life and career: from the inception of The Microphones back in the late 90s, to the formation of Mount Eerie and the tragic death of his wife. And although it aesthetically sounds as if it could have been released at the side of some of Phil’s earliest projects, such as “The Glow, Pt. 2” or “It was Hot, We Stayed in the Water”, “Microphones in 2020” isn’t really a Microphones record. Instead, it’s more of a continuation of what Phil has been doing under the Mount Eerie name for the last few years rather than a return to form with his early work. While his music under the Microphones label explored vast and mythological concepts (especially with his 2003 album “Mount Eerie”), “Microphones in 2020” is instead extremely grounded and human. Its populated with dates, names and locations that fill the decades-long journey Phil is trying to communicate, and he often spends long stretches of time reflecting carefully on these different moments in his life; his changing perspective of the world shedding light on aspects of his personal life, as well as his music. And although lyrically this sounds very post-ACLAM-era Mount Eerie, it’s the retrospective structure of the album that makes it clear why Phil has decided to return to the Microphones name. “Microphones in 2020” perfectly bridges the gap between these two major eras in Phil’s music; before and after the tragic loss that forcefully split it in two in the first place.
“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
I made a boundary between two eras of my life
A feeble gesture at making chaos seem organized”
The music on “Microphones in 2020” is relatively homogenous in its sound throughout, creating a hypnotic feel that does a great job of drawing further attention to the lyrics. The record starts with a seven-minute acoustic passage which introduces the main rhythmic foundations for the rest of the album. From here, layers are slowly added such as Phil’s vocals, as well as distorted guitars and percussion. And just like the lyrics, the music seems to be a thorough and comprehensive exploration of the earlier work in Phil’s career. It’s nowhere near as violent or dynamic as the original Microphones albums, but it carries their same components while remaining far more stable and composed. Crushing distorted guitars, organs, drums and synthesisers all play a role in “Microphones in 2020” just as they did almost two decades ago in Phil’s music, but here they develop far more cohesively. And while the structural incoherence of albums such as “The Glow, Pt. 2” played into their genius, this album does an equally excellent job of creating a more articulate experience.
Along with music, Phil includes a short film to supplement the album which involves 45 minutes of photos taken over the last twenty-or-so years. It feels particularly appropriate due to the autobiographical nature of the record, and does a great job of adding to the atmosphere and narrative he’s conveying. There are even moments when the music correlates directly to the lyrics, which makes for an extremely engaging experience. It’s the best way to experience the album, and I would recommend watching it if you have the time to spare.
This album is lyrically extremely dense. It addresses so much that even in its 45-minute runtime it still feels full to the brim, overflowing with stories and ideas. Much of the thematic content revolves around Phil’s retrospection regarding his life and work under the Microphones name, with a focus on how these years of his life shaped him. He even mentions towards the beginning of the song:
“Now I'm back where I was when I was 20”,
which emphasizes the intense connection he feels with his past self. He’s always been fascinated with the cyclical nature of life; something that has endured throughout his music with the repeated phrases “Now Only” and “There’s No End”. And here this fascination is at its most profound, as he delivers a memoir that spans decades, reflecting back and forth between the past and present. In the final few minutes of the album, which are the most poignant of its whole runtime, he even makes direct reference to moments in his career, such as the iconic line from “The Glow, Pt. 2”:
“I took my shirt off in the yard”,
as well as various other references to “Lost Wisdom” and “Mount Eerie”. These aren’t simply just for fan-service. Instead they serve to take on new meanings as he elaborates upon them. They’re powerful moments that show Phil’s incredible writing ability, which has prevailed throughout the years despite his huge shift in style. It’s with some of these direct references that he manages to deliver some of the most effective lyrics in the album: comparing the two halves of his shattered life through musical citations.
“I wrote about climbing up and dying
And then flying off as vultures
And a universe beyond
Innocent of the real air of death
That awaited down the path”
Any song that lasts 45 minutes has to jump the hurdle of simply being able to hold the attention of the listener for such an extended period of time. “Microphones in 2020” easily overcomes this. It’s engaging and effective, and is an excellent memoir binding together the decades-worth of music he has released. And while what Phil has put together here is relatively esoteric, fans of his music will most likely be extremely satisfied with this release. This is a distinct and beautiful blend of different eras in Phil Elverum’s music, and sounds like a perfect culmination of everything he has put out so far. It’s an album that seems to be hopeful for the future, despite dwelling in the past. And I can’t wait to hear what Phil makes next, whether it’s under The Microphones, Mount Eerie, or something else entirely.
Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 10/08/20