The Microphones

Microphones in 2020 (P.W. Elverum & Sun ELV046) DBL LP

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A new Microphones double album album consisting of one long song. Lovingly packaged in a gate-fold cover, recorded Nowhere.

A review by Max Allison from River Cities' Reader:

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.


Also available:

"The Microphones", Live in Japan [KLP158]