Exploring meaning and the passage of time in his return
Anacortes, Washington native and singer-songwriter Phil Elverum (also known for his work and contributions in the bands Old Time Relijun and D+) has finally returned to his roots under the pseudonym The Microphones, a staple in the underground indie folk music scene. With a beginning in the late ‘90s, The Microphones—perhaps best known for past albums Mount Eerie (2003) and The Glow Pt. 2 (2001)—is an artistic endeavor characterized by its warm lo-fi, psych-pop sound and piercing, profoundly intimate lyrics. Microphones in 2020 marks Elverum’s fifth body of work as The Microphones after releasing albums for the last 17 years as Mount Eerie. It’s just as undeniably personal and soul-searching as his previous albums, if not more so
An almost 45 minute-long single track that dually functions as an album, Microphones in 2020 is a bold musical project that is beautifully detailed and tastefully story-like, in which Elverum brings the listener through an investigation of his time as a musician. In addition to the music itself, an accompanying brief film was produced which included images of Elverum displayed as solo photographs along with the portion of Elverum’s life that is being communicated through the music in that particular period in time, so as to enhance the audience’s connection to Elverum’s craft.
The track begins with the warm sounds of the acoustic guitar, an instrumental passage that continues on for a good fifth of the song—approximately 8 minutes of uninterrupted strumming. Elverum’s voice soon joins the instrumentation shortly after the start of the track, adding depth to the nostalgic and rich soundscape. His lyrics recall his musical career, drawing parallels between his art and a winding river through an extended metaphor. From this point onward, the instrumentation undergoes major changes as the quietly consistent acoustic guitar is rocked by cyclic distorted ambient noises, which reflect his transformative Stereolab concert experience.
Elverum also employs percussive passages, which are a call back to his memories of playing the drums on tour, as well as his analysis of an increasing sense of purpose. These passages not only allow for a diversity of sound by adding texture to the otherwise mellow soundscape, but also emphasize and enhance Elverum’s lyrics. As the track draws to a close, the additional instrumentation is slowly stripped away and the song parallels its start with only the strumming of an acoustic guitar to accompany Elverum’s voice. It is in these closing passages that Elverum references earlier discography through use of a lyric that alludes to the title track of The Microphones’ first album, The Glow Pt. 2.
The allusion to his earliest musical experiences, in combination with the instrumentation’s return to solo acoustic guitar suggests that in Elverum’s opinion, very little about his life and music has changed. But it is perhaps some of the final lines that will remain with the audience, as Elverum sings “I’m still standing in the weather/ Looking for meaning in the giant meaningless/ Days of love and loss repeatedly waterfalling down/ And the sun relentlessly rises still.” The use of water and nature imagery is very typical of Elverum’s body of work, but this particular metaphor is perhaps the most emblematic of Microphones in 2020‘s thematic content as a whole—the constant contemplation of personal meaning.
Ultimately, Microphones in 2020 is arguably some of Elverum’s best work. His philosophically transcendent lyrics, in tandem with his intimate, absorbing soundscapes draw in the listener, inviting them to follow him on his musical journey through his life as he captures his own perspective of the profound.