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Phil Elverum is at his most personal on ‘Microphones in 2020’

| Thursday, August 27, 2020

Mary O'Reilly | The Observer

Phil Elverum, the front (and only) man of The Microphones, has spent the last two decades pioneering the lo-fi, indie-folk genre. He painted a sonic picture of the Pacific Northwest on projects like “The Glow Pt. 2” and “Mount Eerie,” catapulting lo-fi to the forefront of indie music. Before reclaiming The Microphones moniker he used on “The Glow Pt. 2,” he released multiple albums under the name Mount Eerie. “Now Only” and “A Crow Looked at Me,” his last two solo albums, are fraught with emotion; these projects are heavily influenced by recent events from Phil’s life, including the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer in 2016.

While “Microphones in 2020” is a deeply personal album, Elverum revisits fragmented moments and memories from his earlier life that did not appear on “Now Only” and “A Crow Looked at Me.” The album describes his teenage years in the Pacific Northwest, as well as his experiences as a touring musician during his 20s and 30s, in a way that manages to be both autobiographical and poetic. Elverum’s storytelling of moments not yet seen in his discography makes “Microphones in 2020” his most intimate, personal album yet. 

Sonically, “Microphones in 2020” harkens back to Elverum’s earlier albums as The Microphones. The simplistic chords that serve as an anchor during the length of the album are reminiscent of “I Want Wind to Blow” and “I Felt Your Shape” from “The Glow Pt. 2.” Although this album has fewer noisy, explosive moments than “The Glow,” it certainly feels more closely related to that album than projects like “A Crow Looked at Me” and “Now Only.” Structurally, this album stands alone in Elverum’s discography; the album is a single, continuous song that lasts 45 minutes. This format allows Elverum to experiment with different noises and textures while giving him the freedom to expand the focus of his narrative and storytelling.

Like all of Elverum’s projects, “Microphones in 2020” relates the personal to the universal; the fragmented memories that Elverum drifts between are always connected back to some larger, more grandiose idea. Phil sings, “Beneath present moment skies / Squinting and wondering how I got here / Going through the contents of my backpack / Shaking out the dust to bring some empty space back / Filling a long merch table with artifacts / Looking back to see if I could draw a map / That leads to now.” Phil subtly traces his past to the present through fragmented memories and moments of significance in his own life. In the video that accompanied the release of “Microphones in 2020,” Phil continuously places photos on a table; these images of Phil’s past, paired with lyrics like, “trying to re-remind myself of something / learned then forgotten,” invite the listener into Elverum’s most intimate memories.

Although unconventional in structure and narrative, “Microphones in 2020” is a treat for listeners, especially those familiar with Elverum’s previous work as Mount Eerie and The Microphones. We are given a look at early, formative moments in his life, which ultimately trace back to the present. The final lyrics of this album explain why Phil decided to release music as The Microphones again; he sings, “And if there have to be words, they could just be: / ‘Now only’ / And / ‘There’s no end’.” Although time drifts on, we still have Phil Elverum’s music to keep us company.


Artist: The Microphones

Album: Microphones in 2020

Label: P.W. Elverum & Sun

Favorite Track: “Microphones in 2020”

If you like: Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, Julie Dorion

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

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