Music Critic Benjamin Forsdick reviews The Microphones’ newest release, a 44 minute composition, which despite appealing largely to existing fans is a fantastic piece of creative work
Few 21st century artists may lay claim to cultural accolades worthy of matching Phil Elverum. Beginning his career in the late 1990s, Elverum set about recording lo-fi music that would define the indie folk genre. His most notable early releases were under the recording project known as The Microphones, largely remembered for a series of cult albums such as The Glow Pt.2 and Mount Eerie. From 2005 onwards, the latter of these records would double as the alias of Phil’s newer and most prolific project, currently sitting at ten studio albums in length. Lost Wisdom Pt.2, the most recent of these records, was released only last year, yet many will remember 2017’s A Crow Looked at Me as Phil’s most significant stamp on the 2010s. The album harrowingly portrayed the loss of Phil’s wife Geneviève Castree, through a set of bleak lyrics and bare instrumentals. Yet despite the success of Mount Eerie’s recent output, Phil decided that it would be The Microphones that return for 2020, a full 17 years after the last album was released under this name.
The announcement of such was accompanied by the release of the record’s track-listing, comprising of one single song, lasting 44 minutes in length. At this stage of his career, accessibility would be a needless entity for Phil to weave into the compositional process. Resultantly, Microphones in 2020 may be one of Phil’s least immediate and decipherable releases yet. However, a project of this nature and ambition is far from against the grain for Phil. Many of his previous projects are heavily thematic and follow a narrative, even if that narrative is a loose one. Yet Phil’s records have rarely felt this descriptive. What we are dealing with is one song, intimately detailing Phil’s life as a recording artist; and it is a fitting concept, given that Phil’s discography is a cohesive one, indicating that listeners may view his body of work as an overarching piece, with each album contributing an individual chapter. Alongside the single 44-minute song, a short film was released consisting of an extensive collection of photographs of Phil. Each of these is placed individually on a table, designed to work in tandem with whatever aspect of his life Phil is detailing at that moment in time. It is not the most intricate of concepts but nonetheless goes some way to exemplify how Phil continues to progress the presentation of his art to the audience.
The album opens with a two-chord guitar passage, double-tracked and minutely out of phase in an almost identical way to ‘The Pull’, the opening track from The Microphones’ 2000 album It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. For the first seven minutes, this is all we get. The more charitable will claim that such an over-long introduction is symbolic of the time difference between Microphones in 2020 and the last of Phil’s releases under this name. In reality, it reads as an indulgent preview to the rest of the album. However, as this piece progresses past the opening passage, there is little else to complain of.
Phil’s depictions of his early memories as a recording artist are not chronological, but they are vivid. Lyrics often deal in the metaphorical, as do those found in many of his earlier works. Anyone who has followed the Microphones and Mount Eerie for any length of time will be aware of Phil’s interest in nature. This stylistic trait remains here, with Phil likening his life to a waterfall, yet one ‘With no bottom crashing end/And no ledge to plummet off’. He goes on to compare his discography itself to a river; as if to suggest that the river and waterfall, thus his discography and life, are intrinsically interconnected. Even at a surface level, this a beautifully creative piece of imagery. But furthermore, it is as if these comparisons to nature are cathartic to Phil, allowing him to draw closer to understanding what space he occupies, both as a person and musically. At times, this style of lyricism can come across as uniquely self-fulfilling. However, the imagery remains consistently vivid enough to mostly mitigate this issue.
Throughout Microphones in 2020, there is significant focus on gaining deeper meaning from moments of banality. Towards the middle of the album, Phil recalls hiking with his family to the beach and how his younger brother’s clothes became wet. This story appears irrelevant, yet Phil is adamant that this experience must be meaningful in some way. It is in this sense that the album is personal. None of the topics being discussed are beyond the kind of anecdotes that many people will remember from their youth. It is Phil’s ability to articulate these anecdotes that makes them unique. These moments are recalled with such detail as to sound far fresher in his mind than one would expect for a memory formed over 20 years before. Musical influences are discussed, with Phil name-dropping black metal outfit Mayhem, a group that followers of Phil’s music will have heard him reference before. Likewise, the recollection of a Stereolab gig Phil attended in the mid ‘90s is discussed, a moment that evidently composed an important step towards to the establishment of The Microphones.
It is at this stage that we see one of several deviations from the single guitar line that introduces the song. The acoustic guitar drops out and is replaced by a noise wall, not too different to the kind that can be found on the roughest and earliest records in The Microphones’ discography; or indeed those found in the music of Stereolab themselves. So not only do we have lyrical recollections, but also sonic ones. The way noise is used to intercept the mostly acoustic passages allows for a relatively well paced album. There are moments when the instrumentation takes on more of an ambient direction, again not unheard of for The Microphones. The gradual inclusion of percussion as the piece progresses introduces elements of post rock; and the black metal influence, while subtle, is present during these moments too. There is good reason for these instrumental variations, not least to ensure that the album does not get rooted in a one-note acoustic rut. However, the placement of these variations is particular, and fragments of music do not recur randomly. Aspects of Phil’s life are portrayed as cyclic, so repeating compositional phrases makes sense within this context. Despite being excellently paced, the instrumental is occasionally let down by the sparse and recurring rhythms that intermittently enter the mix. One particular rhythmic pattern persistently returns with little reason to do so, at times sounding monotonous. Having said this, the mixing and overall production remains crisp and varied throughout. Phil has generally succeeded in achieving a lot with a little in the case of this album.
During the closing passages, Phil comments on a lyric taken from the title track of the bands seminal album The Glow Pt.2, the opening line of which reads ‘I took my shirt off in the yard’. This moment relates to the idea of bearing one’s emotional and physical scars to the world. The closing passages of Microphones in 2020 reveal that his shirt is in fact still off, meaning that Phil continues to bear his scars to the world. It is a moment that has potential to come across as a sycophantic bout of self-gratitude. Yet a more simplistic (and far less cynical) reading of this moment simply implies that little has changed. Phil was once a young songwriter; the only difference now is his age. These self-referential lyrics give context behind Phil’s decision to make this album at all. He does not dwell on the project’s past recordings, nor does he ignore them, which is crucial to the record’s success.
If Phil was going to revive The Microphones’ name in 2020, it had to be done in the right way and for the right reasons. One lyric in this album jests that he always liked being a one-man attraction because his band could never break up. Nonetheless, there are elements of a reunion to this release. It would have been meaningless to essentially make a Mount Eerie record under The Microphones’ name. Similarly, trying to replicate the sound of The Microphones from the early 2000s would have made for a backward and overly nostalgic project. What Phil has achieved in Microphones in 2020 is an album that is reminiscent yet forward thinking. It is uniquely different to Mount Eerie, relevant to The Microphones, but not a rehash of old ideas and material. Ultimately, this is a record for the already converted but remains consistently creative once past the over-indulgent opening passage; making it a worthwhile, if albeit esoteric addition to Phil’s ever-growing catalogue.
The Microphones in 2020 available now via P. W. Elverum & Sun Ltd
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