Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: The Microphones Microphones In 2020

“I will never stop singing this song,” Phil Elverum intones in his signature trembling singsong narration. “It goes on forever.” Less charitable listeners might spotlight that line as a self-own, coming in the context of a 44-minute track that functions as an album unto itself. Elverum is self-aware enough to recognize that possibility, but his intentions with the new Microphones In 2020 are grander and more philosophical. He’s reflecting back on his youth, when he became an underground icon releasing collage-like analog indie-pop as the Microphones. Now he finds himself “back where I was when I was 20,” connecting the dots between those halcyon moments two decades ago and his current life, perceiving the continuity and the constant flux. “It started when I was a kid,” Elverum sings elsewhere, “and I still want to hold it lightly, this luxurious privilege, to sit around frowning and wondering what it means, playing with words and trying to prove that names mean nothing.”

Clearly he understands on some level that names mean something. Elverum has recorded under many monikers over the years and even changed the spelling of his surname at one point. With 2005’s No Flashlight he discontinued the Microphones and began releasing most of his major work as Mount Eerie, which had been the title of the final Microphones album. Or as Elverum himself tells it on the new release, “At the very end of 2002 I took the Microphones name and crumpled it up and burned it in a cave on the frozen edge of Northern Norway. I made a boundary between two eras of my life, a feeble gesture at making chaos seem organized.” Elsewhere he argues that “fixation on the singer’s face or on the band’s name keeps us groveling and blind at the edge of a sea.”

In a statement accompanying Microphones In 2020, he elaborates, “Instead of shoring up the tilting walls of whoever I think I am, I push at the seams and try to tip it all over. I do not want to be well known by my name or an image or an idea that might trail me around. I do want to know well, and to share insights, about the workings of time and weather growing and eroding this one life.” These are noble intentions, and I’m certain they represent Elverum’s genuine convictions. His stated attempt to “break the spell of nostalgia and make something perennial and enduring” is largely successful. Microphones In 2020 is a rapturous, devastating creative work, one that sent my mind and heart reeling.

Still, if Elverum was fully convinced that rebranding was a futile endeavor, he wouldn’t have bothered to pivot back to a name loaded with so much resonance. He has called Microphones In 2020 an attempt to burn down his past and create something new from the ashes, to take himself off the pedestal as a means of helping us see the world more clearly. Yet in acknowledging that a particular era of his life and discography has become the stuff of legend, even his attempts to demystify and dethrone the Microphones have somehow amplified the power of that old music. Perhaps contrary to Elverum’s intention, Microphones In 2020 affirms the value of sifting through the past from time to time, so long as you spring forward. It works so well not because it tears down those old foundations, but because it builds so beautifully upon them.

When Elverum performed as the Microphones last summer for the first time in 16 years, the choice of band name was significant, especially coming directly after a resurgence of public interest in Mount Eerie. Reviving the Microphones as a recording project is even more meaningful, given the reverence many of us feel for the albums he released under that name — especially The Glow Pt. 2, the landmark 2001 release that famously topped Pitchfork’s year-end list. Both spiritually (via Elverum’s boyish, unpolished presence) and literally (via his affiliation with K Records), the Microphones were part of a storied lineage of Pacific Northwest indie-pop. But they also tapped into the same eerie supernatural qualities that informed the region’s depiction on Twin Peaks. Those albums were not worlds unto themselves so much as chances to view this one through Elverum’s eyes, awed by your own smallness against the expanse of the ocean and the sky.

It’s not like we’ve been deprived of Elverum’s perspective during the Mount Eerie era — hence his point about not putting much stock in the way creative output is packaged — but this new album/song entity steps all the way back into that Microphones aesthetic, dialoguing with it, interrogating it. The hypnotic acoustic guitar loops that typified The Glow Pt. 2 are back in full force. Elverum even quotes old lyrics and melodies at times, in between lengthy flashbacks to scenes from his life back then and proclamations like “When you’re younger every single thing vibrates with significance.” Consider it Elverum’s own Twin Peaks: The Return. Near the end, he refers to his embarrassment over “all this nostalgia” and implies that calling the project Microphones In 2020 is a nonsensical act, another doomed attempt to create order within the chaos. Maybe, but it’s also the only name that makes sense for this release, one that reckons with the passage of time in ways too complex to be written off as mere sentimentality about the good old days.

Elverum has grappled more thoroughly than most with the existential crisis that haunts the corners of every human life, that dissonance between this world’s apparent cold indifference and the profound yearning inside that tells us our existence matters. Geneviève Castrée, his wife of 12 years, died of cancer in 2016, leaving behind Elverum and their young daughter. He channeled his grief into two masterful Mount Eerie albums, A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only, which he rightfully classified as “barely music.” “Death is real,” he famously sang. “Someone’s there and then they’re not/ And it’s not for singing about/ It’s not for making into art.” Elverum remarried quickly, to Hollywood actress Michelle Williams of all people, only to watch that union end just as he was settling into it — another painful reminder of what he calls “the absurdity that permeates everything.”

Long before Elverum’s recent Mount Eerie albums embodied contradiction, The Glow Pt. 2 pulsed within the tension between finite human life and the infinity of nature — both its endless expanse and its ceaseless march. His stories of young passion were always presented against a colossal backdrop that emphasized his own microscopic presence within this world. Microphones In 2020 plunges even deeper into those themes via one lengthy rumination that functions as a poem, essay, memoir, folk song, and tape-deck symphony all at once. Even before Elverum opens his mouth, the music is an unmistakable callback to his early years. In particular, those looped guitar figures, which always seemed to represent the constant hum of Earth’s natural cycles, are stretched out to extremes; at the start of the album, an acoustic two-chord sequence continues unabated for nearly seven minutes before Elverum’s voice finally announces, “The true state of all things: I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising.”

From there he weaves together vast metaphysical explorations and minute personal memories, spinning imagery that will be especially resonant for anyone invested in those old Microphones records. Nearly every lyric is quotable, either for its anapestic beauty or the ways it fills in the gaps of Elverum’s biography. His narration is so vivid and entrancing that you might not notice when the beat finally drops 13 minutes in, or when the music morphs into waves of noise that threaten to drown out his vocals entirely. Still, despite its droning, meditative qualities, Microphones In 2020 does not seem designed to disappear into the background. It’s best experienced like a film, listening closely and pondering deeply. Some will inevitably accuse Elverum of following Mark Kozelek down the path toward solipsistic self-indulgence. Yet before Sun Kil Moon devolved into banal diary entries that, speaking of Twin Peaks, might as well be Agent Dale Cooper’s stream-of-consciousness monologues to Diane, Kozelek conjured transfixing beauty with Benji, a collection of heartbreaking vignettes that was not so far in substance from Microphones In 2020.

One major difference is that Elverum continually veers back from the personal toward the universal, not just bearing his heart but spelling out his conclusions. Even within an autobiographical exercise like this one, he can’t help but keep zooming out until he’s nothing but a speck. (“Every song I’ve ever sung is about the same thing,” he observes: “standing on the ground looking around, basically.”) Nonetheless, along the way there are ample anecdotes from his youth: a breakfast on the porch of a punk house overlooking the Pacific, a run-in with Bonnie “Prince” Billy on tour in Italy, a series of pop-culture epiphanies that informed his approach to music. Some of them are surprising, like a dollar-theater screening of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that rendered Elvereum “a 22-year-old in flip flops running around in an empty mall parking lot lost in a martial arts fantasy.” Others make perfect sense: “I saw Stereolab in Bellingham and they played one chord for 15 minutes. Something in me shifted. I brought back home belief I could create eternity.”

From a fan perspective, these peeks into Elverum’s backstory are titillating — the kind of factoids you hope to uncover in a musician’s tell-all book — but in the same breath he undermines them with big-picture observations about the meaninglessness of such mythology. His obscure and acclaimed works alike, the parts of his life that he has channeled into records and the parts left undocumented — it’s all part of the same song, he insists, “all past selves existing at once in this inferno present moment.” Certain images keep recurring: life as a bottomless waterfall, the sun relentlessly rising each morning until it ceases to be reassuring and instead becomes merciless and foreboding. “It seems like I’ll never not lose wisdom,” Elverum laments. “Constantly re-learning all the basics.” He makes a convincing effort to puncture whatever romantic notions his listeners might maintain about the Microphones, dismissing his most celebrated works as “a finger pointed at the moon mistaken for something shining and true.”

Maybe Elverum is right, and his songs are nothing but fading reverberations from a flailing lost soul. Perhaps it’s foolish to project much significance on out-of-focus guitar strums and mammoth droning squalls and frail whimpers that represent some past version of one man’s struggle. But I don’t think Elverum is ready to go all-in on nihilistic despair. If he was fully convinced that there was nothing special about The Glow Pt. 2, why would he bother to quote one of its most iconic lines near the end of Microphones In 2020, knowing full well it would play as a soul-stirring climax? And why did that moment hit me with a spine-tingling barrage of memory and intangible sentiment? And why has his insistence on immolating the past and lunging into the future only forged a deeper emotional connection to the relics he’s attempting to destroy? Like these questions, Microphones In 2020 does not resolve. Assessing this endless song that is his life, Elverum concludes, “If there have to be words, they could just be ‘now only’ and ‘there’s no end,'” his voice tracing a melody upward and outward until it disappears over the horizon.

Microphones In 2020 is out 8/7 on P.W. Elverum & Sun and will premiere via a full-length lyric video at 1PM ET on 8/6. Pre-order it here.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. leader Jason Molina’s posthumous album Eight Gates.
• Scene-straddling Portland rapper Aminé’s highly enjoyable Limbo.
• Post-rock pioneers June Of 44’s comeback album Revisionist: Adaptations & Future Histories In The Time Of Love And Survival.
• Legendary singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s The Dirt And The Stars.
• Chillwave hero Washed Out’s Purple Noon.
• Kills and Dead Weather singer Alison Mosshart’s spoken-word collection Sound Wheel.
• Australian rapper Tkay Maidza’s first 4AD release, the Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 EP.
• Delaware hardcore wreckers Year Of The Knife’s debut Internal Incarceration.
• Jaga Jazzist’s experimental post-rock set Pyramid.
• Glass Animals’ latest batch of festival-ready synth-rock, Dreamland.
• Pop-country superstar Luke Bryan’s Born Here Live Here Die Here.
• Veteran Pac-NW indie rockers Helvetia’s This Devastating Map.
• Classic rock dinosaurs Deep Purple’s Whoosh!
• Misery Signals’ metalcore onslaught Ultraviolet.
• Terrell Hines’ stylish rap collection Portal One: The Mixtape.
• The Stooges’ Live At Goose Lake: August 8, 1970.