Phil Elverum journeys through a life of art and existentialism on Microphones in 2020
September 30, 2020 | By Harris Bubalo
Photos Courtesy of P.W. Elverum & Sun
In the 17 years that he has donned the Mount Eerie name, lo-fi indie legend Phil Elverum has encountered just about every existential struggle there is. His discography over the past two decades explores such challenges, existing less as music and more like a sonic diary outlining Elverum’s turbulent life and evolving philosophies. Chapters of this diary like 2012’s Clear Moon instill hopelessness by juxtaposing man against the vastness of nature, while the infamous A Crow Looked at Me — an album following the untimely death of Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée — is a harrowing look at grieving and the art that can come out of it.
For his latest album, however, Elverum closes the book of Mount Eerie entirely and instead returns to his old moniker, The Microphones. In doing so, Microphones in 2020 becomes his most autobiographical work yet. The 45-minute behemoth of a song is Elverum at his rawest as he takes listeners on an emotional journey of his entire life thus far.
Longtime listeners of Elverum know that his music is all about motifs. Microphones in 2020 has motifs in spades, the first of which being the two acoustic chords that kick off the track. Played alternately and decorated with stereo panning, these melancholy chords are present for nearly the entire 45-minute runtime and are in fact the only presence before Elverum joins with his voice — eight minutes in.
Still from Phil Elverum's teaser for 'Microphones in 2020'.
“The true state of all things.” Elverum pierces through the lyrical drought with a line that perfectly encapsulates the essence of his music. Both The Microphones and Mount Eerie are experiments for Elverum, made in the ever-fruitless hope of inching towards self-fulfillment and understanding. Microphones in 2020 is simply another installment in this search for truth, but this time, Elverum is being much more thorough. He examines every facet of his life, no matter how mundane or unimportant it may seem to the listener. One moment sees him describe the formation of The Microphones, while the next has him express his love for the wuxia classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Without context, listeners may find Elverum’s tangents absurd, but fans will appreciate the insight into the finer details of his life and music.
As Elverum croons anecdote after anecdote, the instrumentation grows from right underneath him. While not quite as lo-fi and abrasive as his most celebrated album, The Glow Pt. 2, many of the same quirks that made that album a cult hit reappear here. The two chords we once had at the beginning of the track phase in and out of existence, now having to compete with the likes of distorted synthesizers and roaring electric guitar feedback. A drum beat rears its head here and there. A thumping bass line follows suit. Elverum is just as frantic and erratic with his use of instruments as he is with his storytelling.
One particularly frisson-inducing section comes after Elverum relives a hiking trip from his childhood. Caught up in the simplicity and innocence of the moment, he seems to fantasize about being reborn. With this, an ethereal organ swells, enveloping the listener in a sonic womb and bringing them closer to this feeling of longing that Elverum experiences. When the organ finally dies down after two minutes of indescribable warmth, one cannot help but feel disappointed. Elverum’s struggle becomes our struggle. The two chords make their return and it is once again time to search for the truth of all things.
Moon-gazing, black metal appreciation, and the jump from The Microphones to Mount Eerie are just a few of the things Elverum discusses in the latter end of the track, and it all culminates in a rather pessimistic yet unsurprising end to his adventure: “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.’” Even with the return to The Microphones name and a search through every nook and cranny of his life, Elverum’s hunt for truth and self-affirmation is no more successful than when he was Mount Eerie. The exhausted recitation of “There’s no end,” a lyrical motif that dates back to older Microphones work, is merely the nihilistic cherry on top to one of the most existential albums in years.
It’s hard to call Microphones in 2020 an album, or a song, or anything traditionally used to describe music for that matter. Even some of Elverum’s most depressing and challenging work was still bite-sized enough to be somewhat accessible. Microphones in 2020, in its 45 minutes of nonstop existentialism, is a commitment. Listening to it is a feat, and doing so should not only act as a glimpse into Elverum’s struggle with uncertainty, but also as the inspiration to find meaning in martial arts movies, hiking trips, or whatever else you can cling to within the chaos.