Review Summary: I was already who I am
In a lot of ways, Microphones in 2020
feels like Phil Elvrum’s resignation. Not from music, or life, or anything like that – but from the idea that he will ever arrive
. The destination is unbeknownst to the listener, or even Phil for that matter, but that’s the point. All things are in a perpetual state of motion; life progresses through chaotic microchanges that we can barely perceive until we find ourselves somewhere that we didn’t used to be; for Phil, traversing between Mount Eerie, The Microphones, and a series of interconnected memories. He is simultaneously awestruck and bewildered by the way time bends, and the only thing he can do to make sense of it is to retrace his steps through these vivid personal recollections – childhood beach trips (“My little brother's clothes got wet from playing in the winter waves / My parents made a fire of smokey driftwood and we huddled in / And took his wet clothes off and held him naked above the flames”), his first experience recording music (“When I was 17 / It was 1995 / I put the name ‘Microphones’ on the tapes I would make late at night after work at the record store”), touring abroad (“It was early 2001 and I was almost 23 / I'd finished recording The Glow Pt. 2
/ And I was always on tour or setting up a tour / Always running, voracious, thirsty”) – and strategically plant them like mile markers. Where things begin or end is irrelevant to Phil, because he believes existence to be fluid and entirely boundless: “The true state of all things is a waterfall / With no bottom crashing end / And no ledge to plummet off.” As such, there’s no endgame or ultimate destination at which he plans to arrive – he resigns himself to the universe and its sweeping forces, a mere passenger through time and space. His way of asserting efficacy, or assigning some sort of worth to all of this, is to chronicle the journey. On Microphones in 2020
, Elvrum narrates a collage of living, breathing photographs expressed in stream-of-consciousness; a slowly unraveling memoir that details his entire musical legacy in a single forty-five minute song.
While so much of Microphones in 2020
is centered around the past, the album is – more than anything else – an observation of change. Phil utilizes nature to illustrate how time and pressure are capable of molding humans like a shoreline landscape: “It was raining so hard…I watched the dunes migrate slowly.” He marvels at how every second alters the world and his perception of it with verses like “I am older now and I no longer feel the same way / That I did even five seconds ago” and “Each moment is a new collapsing building.” Rarely does he appear fearful of these ever-shifting tides, even when considering his own mortality: “At any moment we could die / And so with urgency, I keep a candle by my side / And watch it disappear and glow.” Although Microphones in 2020
waxes poetic about time, existence, and the inevitable resultant transformations, the portraits that compare Phil in his youth to who he is now actually make it apparent that he is in many ways still the same lost soul, striving to make sense of the senseless: “I never used to think I'd still be sitting here at 41 / Trying to breathe calmly through the waves…But nothing's really changed in this effort that never ends.” At another juncture near the conclusion of the record, he sings “I will never stop singing this song / It goes on forever” – and it’s a testament to Elvrum’s intellectual resolve. The “song” isn’t Microphones in 2020
, it’s a metaphor for his endless search for answers to life’s biggest questions. So as his body ages and the Earth shifts beneath his feet, he remains focused – fixated
– on writing and singing about all which he can’t explain.
The point of intersection between Phil’s personal memories and his existential revelations is the music. Much of his recent work released under the Mount Eerie moniker was instrumentally skeletal and relied entirely on Elvrum’s poetry to carry the listener to catharsis; here, there’s an added weight behind the music that justifies Microphones in 2020
being Phil’s autobiographical opus. The opening few minutes feature acoustic chords that are jarringly repetitive (and not all that dissimilar from A Crow Looked At Me
’s plodding pace), but eventually the song/album dives into distortion and static, placing this tempo shift to perfectly coincide with the impact of Phil’s line, “I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace / Buried underneath distorted bass.” It’s at this moment that the self-awareness of the project becomes abundantly clear – an observation bolstered when the song takes a sudden turn into scattered, disjointed electric guitar riffs right as he mutters, “I saw Stereolab in Bellingham and they played one chord for fifteen minutes / Something in me shifted.” Even though Elvrum has already sonically outpaced Crow
and Now Only
by this point, he further accents the song with classical pianos which trickle in and out of the song’s midsection, adding a needed brushstroke of elegance to an otherwise discordant affair. The intensity and diversity of the atmosphere allows Microphones in 2020
to support Phil’s decades-old memories, his intergalactic ponderings, and everything in between. It’s a resounding success.
With a little over five minutes left in Microphones in 2020
, Phil Elvrum sings “the present moment burns” atop a rare layered vocal harmony. If this album is meant to be something of a memoir for Phil – where he recalls past events and thinks aloud in order to rationalize the present – then the now
sees him immersed in yet another photo for some future collage. How will he write about Microphones in 2020
decades from now? His parting verses are “if there have to be words, they could just be ‘now only’ and ‘there's no end’” – a conclusion that isn’t quite as ambiguous as it seems. Both are allusions to common motifs in his work, with the latter referenced multiple times throughout his career (notably on The Glow Pt. 2
) and the former “now only” (also the title of his 2018 Mount Eerie LP) intentionally juxtaposed with it. The positioning of these lyrics is intentional, and is meant to draw attention to the contradiction that occurs throughout Microphones in 2020
: we both are and are not
our past selves. That’s why the present is such an intriguing and confounding time – we have neither the luxury of hindsight nor knowledge of the future. We are who we are at this exact, precise second, and it’s inescapable until…well, now. That’s why Microphones in 2020
feels like Elvrum resigning himself – he’s overwhelmed by the possibility of infinite change. It’s why he tries to map out his entire life for perspective, and why he has no idea where to go from here. Microphones in 2020
hits the pause button for Phil to reflect and catch his breath, and in that there’s a certain peace to be found.