'Microphones in 2020' Crystallizes Phil Elverum's Lifetime of Soul-Searching

BY Matt BobkinPublished Aug 5, 2020

As a society, we are stuck. At a time when the present moment seems so overwhelming and confusing, sometimes the only places we can turn to are the caverns of our own histories, digging into the treasure troves of our pasts in our search for answers.

Phil Elverum has been doing that that for some time now. The death of his first wife, Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer in 2016 led to a pair of Mount Eerie albums, 2017's A Crow Looked at Me and 2018's Now Only, where Elverum forwent his typical, amorphous sonic landscapes for a series of brittle confessions about the precariousness of life, the totality of loss, and the frayed ways in which one can move forward from such a harrowing reality.

As if things couldn't get more complicated, Elverum ended up in a brief but high-profile marriage to Hollywood actor Michelle Williams, who had experienced the death of her ex-partner Heath Ledger a decade earlier, which led to a temporary move to Brooklyn. Once the relationship had ended, Elverum retreated further into his past, reuniting with Julie Doiron for a sequel to their 2008 collaboration Lost Wisdom

And now he's retreated further still, into the Microphones, the moniker he adopted as a teenager for his earliest recordings. Like the way one might regress to a childhood self when visiting family for a weekend, Elverum has embraced the sound and state of his youth as he processes his past — in search of answers, maybe? In search of peace and familiarity against an uncertain future? The answers, as they always are with Elverum, are unclear.

The act of searching is the point, as Elverum riffles through a lifetime of events, thoughts and feelings over the course of a single, 44-minute song, "Microphones in 2020," that comprises the entirety of his latest album, his first as the Microphones since abandoning the name for Mount Eerie 15 years ago, a decision he discusses near the end of the track. Though sonically similar, it's almost the opposite lyrically of his music from that time. As a young man, Elverum distilled his thoughts and feelings into vivid images of nature's vastness compounded by the smallness of being human, like a lone silhouette illuminated by a lamppost in the middle of a rainstorm. Here, moments are specific and nuanced, crumpled by decades of hindsight and emotional wear-and-tear, but with an unequivocal reverence for his past and the way that it would shape his future.

A counterpoint to his earliest albums, "Microphones in 2020" is filled with many straight-laced lyrical and sonic references to his oeuvre, as a form of continuity for himself and certainly a bonus for his many longtime devotees. Whether starting with the ragged strums that recall the intro to 2000's It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, the direct rip of a standout lyric from the title track to his 2001 opus The Glow Pt. 2, or the various names and fragments from countless other Elverum works, "Microphones in 2020" is a Phil Elverum memoir in the way that only Phil Elverum himself can tell — vast stretches of sonic oceans, deserts and plains, anchored by acoustic guitars with electric overdubs for emphasis, a collage of his memories made quite literal by the accompanying music video, featuring archival photos from Elverum's life stacked rhythmically and thematically to the song. (In the song, he likens it to "filling a long merch table with artifacts, looking back to see if I could draw a map that leads to now.")

In spite of its amorphous, single-song format, the song is remarkably structured, continually anchored by the weight of the specificity of Elverum's recall. Much of the imagery should be familiar to longtime listeners — plenty of rainstorms and being at the mercy of nature and the universe; musical influences and contemporaries like Eric's Trip, Sonic Youth and Bonnie "Prince" Billy; the begrudging necessity of technology in the primitive days of internet; Elverum's lifelong preoccupation with death, changing states and the image of something glowing — but beneath the specificity lies a humility and simplicity, though the arrangements are anything but simple. Elverum's not seeking a profound truth; he's just looking inward. The future is always uncertain — Elverum knows that more than most — but he has carved out a comfort in the past, even at its most fraught and tumultuous, and uses it to ease woes about what might come next.

"Microphones in 2020" is the kind of memory-searching salvo an artist might make while only on the brink of death, a subject that has been on Elverum's mind decades before it would be the subject of his later-career renaissance. And where fellow '90s upstart Mark Kozelek, who also followed up his morbid opus (2014's Benji as Sun Kil Moon) with a series of personal ramblings, each more unhinged and pointless than the last, Elverum continues to thrive in the caverns of his own history, remaining somehow egoless while strongly, deeply rooting his work in his own experiences. This is Elverum's indelible stamp of style, distilled into a single track that flows like waves in the ocean or hills on the mountainside. Because what is life if not one long song, anyway?
(P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)

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