Microphones in 2020: History as a means of understanding

Thursday, September 10, 2020 - 4:15pm

NOSELL

P.W. Elverum & Sun Ltd.

Whether it be under The Microphones or Mount Eerie, everything in Phil Elverum’s discography exists in such a way that it feels ridiculous to try to assume any interpretation. There is probably no better example of this than his 2017 release A Crow Looked at Me under the Mount Eerie moniker, a project whose subject matter and presentation made for one of the most intrusive listening experiences in recent memory. Not to mention, each successive album he’s created doesn’t seem to answer any of the questions made by the previous one — it just presents another puzzle piece. It’s unclear if Phil even has an interpretation himself, considering that aimlessness tends to be a recurring theme in his work. The only thing that is clear about his output is that it feels like a set of snapshots of himself at that moment. That was until he released Microphones in 2020, which finally provided some clarity surrounding the ideas in his work and with that a perspective on existence itself.  

Just to make it easier to analyze in its entirety, one should have at least three separate experiences with the album. Microphones in 2020 blends visual, auditory and literary form into a masterful display of multimedia art composition — which is why I say experience instead of just listen. The first experience should be to read the lyrics while listening along to get a basic understanding of the ideas and stories. Watching the accompanying video afterward adds an immense amount of context to each narrative thread. The video has an incredibly basic premise, showing Elverum setting down a large collection of polaroids taken during a pivotal era of his life, the placement of each polaroid seemingly in tandem with the subject matter of the album. Its simplicity provides a powerful emotional connection to the music in a way that makes calling it a music video feel reductive. If this were the case, he wouldn’t have released it the same day as the music. After seeing the video, take time to listen to the album alone in nature. Microphones in 2020, as is the case with much of Elverum’s other work, is an album that roots itself in a memory of the natural world. The actual music is surprisingly uncomplicated. The album (whose structure is just one 44-minute and 44-second track) primarily focuses on the alternation of two chords on the acoustic guitar with several sounds layered on as time progresses. The first seven minutes are just these two chords, placed in such a way that they phase in and out of rhythm, acting almost as a waiting room before getting into the real meat of the song. This prolonged time allows for the listener to get in their own head and really focus on the album itself.

This lengthy introduction also makes Phil Elverum’s first words resonate with cannon-like intensity: “The true state of all things.” It’s barely a statement and yet it promises that the next 37 minutes will be spent trying to get to the bottom of it. He subtly provides answers: one of them is “walking with my knees trembling” and then immediately claiming that “the true state of all things is a waterfall.” He equates existence to a constant state of falling in complete disarray. Elverum references falling alongside “debris and flowers,” which could represent the accompanying good and bad that inevitably is a part of life. This first section of the song acts as a thesis statement of sorts, with the rest of the song acting as evidence for it. In order to do so, he must explore the only thing he truly knows: his own history.

Microphones in 2020 is a deeply autobiographical album. A large component of it surrounds the ideas of reflection and retrospection. The album cover itself practically screams this idea (turn it upside down if you haven’t already). But Phil Elverum intentionally limits his reflection to the era in which The Microphones existed, which went from about the age of 17 to 23. The reason for this seems to be a certain fascination with youth. In his own words, “When you’re younger every single thing vibrates with significance.” This time in his life was particularly important in understanding who he was (and still is). He implies his relationship with his music during this time was solely  an effort to gain meaning. “I wanted to go deeper, beneath pain, beneath the human.” The way he does this is through nature.

Nature plays an integral role in the formation of Elverum’s identity. Particularly when he was young, living in the Pacific Northwest always gave him a sense of proximity to the earth around him. To me, the natural world has a sense of permanence — it existed before us and will continue to exist long after we’re gone. For Phil Elverum, his reasoning comes in the form of a question:

“Is it because my parents barely had any money and preferred to leave the baby in the garden that I grew up to blur the boundary between myself and the actual churning dirt of this place, that it feels normal to me to speak with the voice of weather, to build and move into a mirage made of songs cascading down a rock face in a homemade myth?”

Not long after this, the music begins to reach a singularity point. Elverum slowly sings the lines, “When I wake alone in the dark again / I swim / out into the lake of the heart / and in.” The album almost slows to a halt and then opens up again for ethereal and beautiful sounds to fill the space. It isn’t quite clear whether this suggests he finally understands why he is the way he is, but it provides emotional clarity nonetheless.

Microphones in 2020 never allows for a full interpretation. Elverum loves to provide information and clues that could lead in several different directions. Conceivably this is one of the reasons why he references mist, mirages and blurry scenery so much in his work. Perhaps as a consequence of this proclivity towards diffuseness, Microphones in 2020 presents the listener with countless examples of duality. The most obvious one comes in the form of the past versus the present. Throughout the whole album, Phil switches between his present state and important moments in his own history in an attempt to understand how he got where he is today. This is why after almost every personal anecdote there is a moment of introspection where he gains insight. 

A not-so-obvious but equally important duality is his constant allusion to the idea of permanence versus impermanence. For example, the alternation between the two chords represents transformation but the repetition of the phrase throughout the song creates a feeling of unchangeability. He also leaves hints of this concept in tiny lyrical fragments. “All the layers of life glint in my flashing eye / simultaneously and at any moment we could die / and so with urgency I keep a candle by my side / and watch it disappear and glow at the same time”. In this instance, Elverum realizes the suddenness of mortality but also understands that through his songs he can be eternal. His identity also becomes subject to this conflict. He goes from saying “I was already who I am” to “I no longer feel the same way that I did even five seconds ago.” The question then becomes, what are we supposed to believe? Has he truly changed and learned from his past or has he just realized what he has always been? I think there’s a possibility it’s simply both. Much like the waterfall, Phil and the world he inhabits exist in a state of chaos, but constantly so. 

At the very end of the album, Elverum discusses the existence of Microphones in 2020 and how its absurdity should be apparent and “undermining our delicate stabilities”. He then says, “Anyway every song I’ve ever sung is about the same thing: / standing on the ground looking around, basically. / If there have to be words, they could just be / ‘now only’ and ‘there’s no end’”. This is where everything falls into place. Elverum gave the answer to the meaning behind the rest of his discography. His discography isn’t a puzzle set, where every album acts like an individual piece. It’s more like an endless ladder, with each rung bringing us and Phil further in one direction. In effect, Microphones in 2020 acts as not only a blueprint for the various ideas he has discussed throughout his career, but also his entire life. He makes it clear in the album that his song is something he’ll sing forever. Microphones in 2020 is the confirmation of his stubborn pursuit of creation. It demonstrates Elverum’s constant state of moving forward, even if his knees are trembling.

Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at gadband@umich.edu.