Most long-term fans of The Microphones will have been following Washington-native Phil Elverum under his Mount Eerie moniker since The Microphones stopped recording, but even though the singer/songwriter has still been making music, The Microphones’ first new recording in 17 years is still a grand return.
The Microphones’ new album Microphones in 2020 is a trip back to Elverum’s past. The sprawling 45-minute track features guitar strumming under his quiet singing as he recounts memory after memory centered around his creative struggles at the start of his career. The lyrics are full of references and observations that do well to frame the track in nostalgia. Infrequent chord changes and the occasional swelling of additional guitars & other instruments are the only major deviations from this hypnotizing structure.
The short film shows printed photographs being placed down one after another. Most of them depict nature in some way, which is one of Elverum’s favorite themes to use. His photography has a distinct style with its use of blurs and depictions of half-transparent people and gloomy skies. As the video’s caption, Elverum resulted to his unique brand of humor, describing it with “powerpoint karaoke slideshow/lyric demonstration/music display/photo flip/audio book.”
In a press release, he went more into depth on it, “It’s not a music video really. A short film? A not-moving picture? An unboxing of a not yet made photobook? Amateur hypnotism? I like the idea of “lyric videos”, because music videos always seem weird to me, and I like making people read the words. This is kind of a lyric video, but also a slideshow, a powerpoint presentation, a flip book. For this long autobiographical song, since there was no archival footage to use, I spent 3 weeks carefully arranging over 800 of my printed photos to sync them with the lyrics, line by line. It is a documentary, illustrated with blurs, clouds, ghosts, and the real actual people and places that are being sung about.”
Documentary is likely the best word for it, and fans should be interested in it as an insight into Elverum’s experience, if not for the ambitious soundtrack delivery. It sounds more similar to his newer Mount Eerie material than the old Microphones albums, but the revival of The Microphones’ name makes sense considering the lyrical content.
In recent years, Mount Eerie was associated with two albums in which Elverum tried to process his late wife’s death through music, A Crow Looked at Me (2017) and Now Only (2018). More recent than those, however, was his previous album, Lost Wisdom Pt. 2 (2019), which was more similar to Microphones in 2020 sonically as well as thematically. It’s a follow up to Mount Eerie’s 2008 album, Lost Wisdom, and also served to demonstrate Elverum’s ability to turn back time in his own way.
When Elverum announced Microphones in 2020 he stated “In it I have tried to get at the heart of what defined that time in my life, my late teens and early twenties, but even more importantly, I tried to break the spell of nostalgia and make something perennial and enduring.” After 17 years, fans now have an opportunity to revisit the magic of The Microphones in a way that puts the old albums in a new perspective.