Capturing the unique nature of our universe has been a burden the hermetic Phil Elverum has labored over on many albums. At times, his words evoke the chimeric idea of nature, simultaneously rooted in physical forms yet transmitting an inner quality that he tries to root out in his songs. When his songs paint the moon as a grandiose being at balance with our world, while maintaining its amorphous symbolic purpose, he creates an altogether new reality.
As the Microphones, Elverum’s precarious barrage of folk, lo-fi rock and metal resulted in records that carved out a universe which shared elements of our world, but buried them beneath his own eye-opening axioms. “In sunlight our bodies glide.” “My blood flows harshly.” “Now that I have disappeared I have my sight.” The world established by the lyrics of the Microphones’ first few albums was mythological in aspiration, full of creatures and stories that demolished your sense of self.
Once Elverum dropped that moniker, and became Mount Eerie, his focus went into making these worlds sound like myths themselves — hazy dreamscapes, black metal dirges, and heavy tape manipulations. These became the standard form of experimentation until the tragic passing of Elverum’s partner and fellow artist Geneviève Castrée. The pretense of his entire career crumbled into his two most recent solo albums, records that strip back everything and expose raw portraits of grief. Drifting through his house, going through an old backpack and finding sand from old trips to the beach, and the subsequent idea of performing these odes to dolour to faceless crowds replaced the phantasmal snapshots of the universe.
This shift from soft-focus sketches to intimate, uncomfortable reality can be traced through the simple observations Elverum makes about the world around him. This evolution of his perspective has reached absurd new heights on Microphones in 2020, an album that finds the singer-songwriter returning to his old Microphones name, revisiting the memories that are entangled with that identity, and engaging with the images that have persisted long after those moments have passed.
Recounting the history of Phil Elverum feels almost essential to approaching this release. The album is a single song constructed over a year, 44 minutes of commentary delivered via spoken word and muted singing, and released with a music video that features Elverum stacking personal photos on top of each other. The livestream of this video can be re-watched as he captions the photos in real time.
This interactive multimedia project borders on recursive — many of the lyrics, instrumental ideas and photos from the video can be found elsewhere in his catalog. Selling the idea of this record to someone who hasn’t already sunk their lives into the Microphones and Mount Eerie feels pointless because this music serves as a reflection on itself.
Yet it never approaches the level of a collage of past glory or the culmination of the many musical projects of Phil Elverum. He intentionally deflates this idea. He bluntly illustrates how absurd Microphones in 2020 comes across, how his ideas are the same handful of opaque aphorisms regarding time and questioning existence he’s been tinkering with his whole life and how he’s been stuck in this liminal holding pattern between wisdom and un-wisdom, relearning things throughout his life.
The ending of the album boils his work down to two lyrics: “Now only” and “There’s no end.” Even the title of the album seemingly mocks the absurdism of its timing and release. In 2020, amidst a global pandemic, a nation reckoning with systemic racism, and fascism in the U.S., what is the purpose of the Microphones in 2020? How does the sound of Microphones in 2020 reflect anything beyond its creator and his past? The answers to those questions are pointless because Microphones in 2020 exists as a Mobius strip of one artist’s sense of self. The album doesn’t intend to make grandiose statements about a lifetime of work, and it doesn’t exist to be a magnum opus. Instead, it exists because it’s trying to define its existence, however pointless that may seem.
The two-chord strumming form of this album’s hypnotic bedrock serves the same function as the densely percussive beginning to 2003’s Mount Eerie. When Elverum sings about taking his shirt off in 2001, and how that moment is still happening, it doesn’t serve as nostalgia or self-mythologizing. It’s simply an observation of how these past moments are enduring, recorded in a vessel that evokes an unyielding feeling. The two chords transform into distorted folk, crumbling dirges, and dissipate into a densely layered blend of organs and drones. The evolution of this sound warps and rotates before finally resting once again on those same two chords. As simplistic as the music is, the repurposing of motifs and themes into a singular track feels like the only way to aptly soundtrack this autobiographical composition.
Creation is at the heart of Microphones in 2020. Influences are not only worn on the music, but plainly spoken out loud. The minutiae is revealed when he describes how the name “Microphones” came to represent himself. Recording processes, inspirations from both music and non-music sources, aspirations, and details dissipate the signature fog that surrounds Elverum’s musical iconography and creative identity. Venturing into his own biography in an attempt to render what inspired this art dissolves that magical fog and aura of this work, while also layering in a confounding new meaning to his work. In a search for answers, what do we do when we only find more questions?
As the photos continue to flop down throughout the livestream, we see what images captured on film inform the creation of works valuable to many people, including myself. We see moments of friendship, mountains and forests and houses that form the settings for these recordings, tour locales, Geneviève, and landscapes buried in fog.
As I watched this livestream in August 2020, each photo dropping onto another, with Phil Elverum and thousands of fans commenting on what we saw, the absurdity of this moment really did permeate everything. The images weren’t just a photo album being flipped through, and the music wasn’t just scoring the video. This was a towering document of time, the present and the past falling on top of each other as I watched people react to an artist attempt to define their life. At the same time, these were pictures I saw on YouTube that I had no attachment to and will likely forget in a few days. Microphones in 2020 is an album that meticulously grapples with its creation, the history of its creator, and the absurdity that comes with this process.
This newly shifted perspective on the worldbuilding of Elverum’s work collapses the current moment into the past as the sounds and lyrics weigh heavily in the dead air. Simultaneously, when Elverum openly muses about that, in the face of an unending universe, most of his work can be boiled down to a few ideas, I find humor in the triviality of it all. Microphones in 2020 is a statement about creation, one with insights informed by the absurd, and whose absurdity is always insightful.