Microphones in 2020
2020 – Rock / Experimental
P.W. Elverum & Sun
In the new 45-minute track from The Microphones, Phil Elverum returns with sharp, vivid and intimate writing, telling his whole story alongside two guitar chords.
In late 2002, right after several shows of the “I Will Move Away Forever and Never Come Back Ever” Tour, Phil Elverum settled in Kjerringøy, Norway, where he would spend the winter in a small wooden hut. During his short stay in the frozen European lands, Elverum had a kind of epiphany. He wanted to start over, forgetting and leaving all his past of pain and suffering behind. For that, he wrote the name “The Microphones” on a paper, went to a dark and cold cave, set up a fire and burned the paper with the name of the project he had been working on for 6 years. In a way, that was a relief and a real fresh start for him since, for the next 17 years, Phill would be playing on the name of Mount Eerie, in honor of a mountain near his hometown. However, almost two decades after the burning of The Microphones, Elverum returns to the name of his first project with Microphones in 2020, a 45-minute song that traces the entire life of the American singer, producer and composer.
Throughout his career, Elverum always tended to look at the universe, nature and people, looking for meaning, explanation and reason. He never wanted to make music because he wanted to have the best selling or award-winning album, but because he liked to do it. He did not paint successful and famous lifestyles; he drew everyday life cleverly. He never wanted to play for crowded stadiums, but to play his message from his own experiences. He owned his own art—he records in his own studio, owns his own record label and designs the covers for his own albums. In this way, The Microphones’ new album, Microphones in 2020, tells the whole story of Elverum, from his earliest memories to the moments when this album was produced. In a nutshell, Microphones in 2020 is one of those unique experiences to be made, unique to hear and that remain unique in our memories.
The first seven minutes of “Microphones in 2020” are filled only by an acoustic guitar that plays two chords at all times. According to Elverum, this instrumental, reminiscent of “The Pull” by It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, represents the 17 years that The Microphones was dead. However, this same guitar is not limited to the first few minutes, but remains throughout the whole song. In some moments, this mixes with synthesizers, drum beats and gongs, but in others, this is the main star of the narrative. It’s so intriguing how something so simple can sound so complex (just like life, right?). Over these 45 minutes, you have a feeling that everything has evolved, but also, that everything has remained the same. In the end, perhaps, that is the real intention of that: to represent life. We always evolve, however, we never lose what makes us who we are. In a nutshell, Microphones in 2020 is a beautiful philosophy about it.
After the beautiful, and really long and tiring, introduction, Elverum appears in what I’m going to call the first part of the song. Beside the same two chords, which rarely have nuances, Elverum starts with weak and blurry memories. He sings, “I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising,” showing that his life keeps going. Then, his memories start to gain more and more strength as you pass the track. He says, “But now I’m back where I was when I was 20/Crashing through salal alone and mumbling/One moment thinking I’m wise/And in the next one I writhe.” He continues to trace this process that mixes lived images with lucid dreams and metaphors. At the end of this part, just before noisy synthesizers appear, he demonstrates that even with all the bad times, he wouldn’t change anything in his path. He sings while everything gains more strength, “Looking back to see if I could draw a map/That leads to now.” I think this is a question that nobody knows how to answer.
After that, the two guitar chords become almost inaudible when turbulent synthesizers, thick bass and guitar strings appear alongside Phill. At this moment, he recounts his daily life when he was a young adult: he had breakfast on a balcony, spent the afternoon in a studio, drove alone, checked his e-mail, watched films about martial arts and among other things. However, all of these events are not played out for us, but are told. It is almost as if we had re-found a childhood friend and he was telling us everything that happened since primary school. While he traces these extremely well-written lyrics, the instruments dance in the background in an almost mythological way, varying between an almost deafening intensity and something soft and calm. Finally, a little later, with an even sharper and more lived writing, he tells about how he created “The Microphone” and how he and his girlfriend thought they owned the world. An incredible work in all factors.
The most amazing thing, and also one of the things that give a certain charm to the track, is the fact that nothing is necessarily chronological. For example, the following minutes that mix various moments in Elverum’s life. First, we see him reporting financial problems in childhood and how he created a certain connection with nature; later, he recounts a trip he had with his family and his brother got wet and had to dry himself in an unconventional way over a fire; and lastly, simple scenes like the account of how there was almost no internet at the time. This fact that he mixes the scenes in a non-chronological way makes everything seem even more like a conversation between us and a childhood friend.
After that, Elverum, while presenting instrumental variation and vocal rhythm, enter into an ultra-detailed process about the creation process of The Glow Pt. 2 in 2001 and about a European tour he did, until he arrives at the moment that he reports the death of The Microphones. Unfortunately, as interesting as it is, this moment is really tiring. Fortunately, near the end we reached the metalanguage with him saying, “I will never stop singing this song/It goes on forever/I started when I was a kid and I still want to hold it lightly,” making a connection between how this song it’s actually something of movement that will always be changing at the pace that his life also changes. After reaching the metalanguage (“So what if I label this song ‘Microphones in 2020’?”) and after everything has made one last appearance, he finishes alongside the same chords he started, “There’s no end.” Just like our life.
Finally, it is important to note that this is not an accessible project for most people. Of course, this track is realistic, detailed, has teachings and reflections and is beautiful, but is also a folk song of almost 50 minutes in length, which does not go far beyond a guitar that plays two chords and some occasional appearances by synthesizers, guitars and other more unusual instruments. The vast majority of people will think that this is a flat, slow track that doesn’t develop. If you analyze it from a few angles, this is true because for you to take all the potential out of the great experience that this song is, you must already be familiar with the Elverum’s work. It’s almost like you watch a compilation of extended and excluded scenes from a movie that you haven’t even seen. Fortunately, for those who know Phill, they will know how to appreciate Microphones in 2020 in the way it was meant to be: a true-life experience.