The first lines on Phil Elverum‘s latest project, Microphones in 2020, arrive almost seven minutes into the album: “The true state of all things: I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising.” Despite comparing memories from his past to “dreams that I don’t trust” immediately after, the singer-songwriter goes on to excavate details from his time as a young adult in this engrossingly introspective 44-minute track/poem, which doubles as a philosophical rumination torn between the meaninglessness of things and their potential for infinite, devastating beauty. Adding even more layers into this distinctly self-referential work, he delves into the inherent murkiness of self-mythologizing by reviving the beloved the Microphones moniker for the first time in 17 years, and almost two decades after the release of the seminal The Glow pt. 2.
In a statement accompanying the announcement of the album, Elverum explained that the idea for Microphones in 2020 dawned on him after he decided to play a small show under that name for no particular reason, and the buzz it created led him to ponder what it means to resurrect past identities, especially when the essence of what he’s been singing about hasn’t changed much since he adopted the moniker Mount Eerie, which was also the name of the last Microphones album. “Anyway every song I’ve ever sung is about the same thing,” he concludes semi-casually near the end of the song: “standing on the ground looking around, basically.” The way Elverum dissects moments from that time in his life will no doubt captivate longtime fans, especially as he peppers multiple references to his past work throughout the album’s runtime.
But the record, perhaps in spite of itself, is about much more than engaging with the perceived significance of a name. It stands as a compelling work of art on its own, a vivid portrait of one’s youth as profoundly resonant as any. In that same statement, Elverum highlights that his intention was to “break the spell of nostalgia and make something perennial and enduring.” Though it often does veer into nostalgia, it succeeds in balancing out those emotions with a kind of contemplative attitude that colours these moments in a new light, piecing them together so they feel less like fleeting memories than half-formed revelations. But the true battle here seems to be less about not surrendering to nostalgia than trying to fight against the weight of nihilism by rekindling the fire of youth, which turns out to be a much more intriguing concept.
In 2016, Elverum lost his wife, the artist Geneviève Castrée, to cancer; he captured his grief in harrowing detail with two equally heart-wrenching albums: 2016’s A Crow Looked at Me and 2018’s Now Only. He then married and divorced the actress Michelle Williams, and their separation became the subject of last year’s collaborative project with Julie Doiron (whom he namechecks as an influence here), Lost Wisdom pt. 2. If this trilogy of albums served as an exploration of the real magnitude of loss and the emptiness it leaves behind, Microphones in 2020 plays out like an attempt to try to relive the glory of gaining something in the process of coming-of-age, of becoming rather than succumbing to formlessness. “When you’re younger every single thing vibrates with significance,” he proclaims softly, a simple yet powerful statement in a sea of quotable lines.
The specificity of Elverum’s lyrics are part of what renders them so potent, but the way he evokes the feeling of being inspired by the world around him – art, music, nature – will no doubt strike a deep chord with many listeners. At one point, he not only notes the exact date when he first saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – something you might catch in one of Mark Kozelek’s rambling monologues (interestingly, Red House Painters are also on that list of artists he references) – but he also details every element that resonated with him, like “the sound of empty wind when they sword-fought weightless in the bamboo with a purity of heart that transcends gravity leaping off the mountain into ambiguity falling slow.” An image gives birth to a sound: “I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace/ buried underneath distorted bass, fog imbued with light and emptiness.” It’s the kind of insight you’d expect to get in the form of a written autobiography, only much more evocative – and though Elverum’s music was always of that nature, the way he reflects on his own art-making process here is nothing short of illuminating.
That line about “music that contained this deeper peace” also acts as an apt description of the sound of this record, which sits somewhere between the stripped-down intimacy of his work as Mount Eerie and the lo-fi experimentation of the Microphones. Propelled along by a two-chord, double-tracked acoustic progression that persists for the majority of the track, the music is imbued with character and nuance in just the right places, making Microphones in 2020 feel more like a fully-fleshed piece of work than a purely reflexive one; it follows his train of thought and fills the space around it, at times hitting you like the rising sun, an image he continuously returns to in his lyrics. It is at once steady and fluid, reflecting the stream-of-consciousness flow of Elverum’s writing.
At one point in the track, Elverum recalls seeing Stereolab live, describing how them playing one chord for 15 minutes caused something in him to shift. He accompanies it with the reverberating echo of a guitar that sounds like something being born, a new beginning: “I brought back home belief I could create eternity,” he intones. Despite the fact that he compares any effort to instil meaning through music as “a finger pointed at the moon/mistaken for something shining and true” (earlier, he relays a memory of him staring at the moon with his friends, “trying to blow each others’ minds just lying there gazing, young and ridiculous”), he doesn’t seem to have given up on that belief. There might be something grim about accepting the meaninglessness of life, but there’s a beauty in clinging to the romantic ideal of art persisting through time, in marvelling at the endlessness rather than the impermanence of things, and, ultimately, feeling inspired enough to even attempt to recreate it. There are really no endings, Elverum seems to say, only the present: constantly shifting, permeable, and above all, true.