It’s been sixteen years since singer/songwriter Phil Elverum released an album under his Microphones moniker. The last offering was a live collection recorded on three different nights in Japan and featured all new material. Albums recorded as The Microphones aren’t always easy to talk about. Every track on 2003’s Drums from Mt. Erie was untitled. Microphones in 2020 is no exception, mostly because the record is made up of one 45-minute song.
The first eight minutes of Microphones in 2020 is comprised of only two chords strummed gently but steadily on an acoustic guitar. It’s obvious immediately this is a beautifully recorded piece as each lovingly struck string can be heard while the notes bounce lightly from left to right speakers. After four verses of seemingly random thoughts based around the concept of “the true state of all things”, a crunchy electric guitar, bass, and finally a drum kit fall into the mix while Elverum begins to reflect upon seemingly random events from his early twenties, like checking his Hotmail account or watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a dollar theater.
Over a quarter of the way into Microphones in 2020, the music is little changed. Cymbals crash and the electric guitar takes on a somewhat angrier, distorted tone. Things settle down a bit before Elverum begins to sing about the origins of The Microphones. Here, the lyrics alternate between simple prose, “I stayed late recording every night, then I drove back to my parents’ house,” and stunning poetry, “Even back then the beast of uninvited change insisted itself in, and look here it still hangs.”
Halfway in, a pulsing, distorted guitar line is briefly laid on top of the mix. The pulsing fades in and out, replaced briefly with a piano as we time travel with Elverum back to being an adolescent. “When you’re younger every single thing vibrates with significance,” he sings. Twenty-seven minutes into the album, the music changes drastically. An organ slowly fades in, loosening the tension between the song’s initial chords as the recording’s overall tone briefly takes on a celestial quality. It’s a beautiful moment, albeit an all too brief one.
The last fifteen minutes of Microphones in 2020 find the recording returning to the initial alternating chords. We travel forward through time with Elverum now as he recalls a humorous tour anecdote wherein he runs into the members of Bonnie Prince Billy dressed in matching tracksuits in a parking lot in Italy. In the track’s last five minutes, the lyrics become self-referential. Elverum sings, “So what if I label this song Microphones in 2020?” The track ends with the line, “Anyway, every song I’ve ever sung is about the same thing: standing on the ground, looking around, basically. If there have to be words, they could just be, now only and there’s no end.” The last line is sung, and the final chord echoes out, as if a question rather than a statement.
Microphones in 2020 certainly won’t be for everyone. Longtime fans of the project may appreciate the references in the lyrics to past Microphones works and the project’s embedded origin story. Still, if in the album’s first eight minutes you don’t find yourself warming to the alternating two-chord pattern, it’s safe to assume Elverum’s lyrics and vocals won’t be enough to sustain you through the remaining thirty-plus minutes, which offer only scant and ephemeral change-ups musically.