Phil Elverum is not a career musician.
Well, not really — the man indeed has among the most celebrated and tragic bodies of work in indie rock, spanning just over two decades and a myriad of diverse, explorative albums. But the deeper you dive into the man’s life, the more you begin to feel as though he’s doing this more for himself than for anyone else, including his cult following of indie rockers and experimental folk aficionados. The words he’s penned are so honest, so to the point, that they often feel less like a performance; less like something he intended for the listener’s enjoyment, and more like a soliloquy-esque release of intensely personal emotion. These songs he’s released, both as the Microphones and as Mount Eerie, will never truly belong to the listener in the way they belong to Elverum.
That’s a good thing to keep in mind upon listening to this behemoth track, which sits at just under 45 minutes and yet contains only one simple chord progression repeated throughout its entirety. There is no better argument for the man’s creativity and artistic merit than the fact that he keeps this project engaging in spite of its simplicity, be it through the addition or subtraction of instrumentation, through vocal tracking or through the candidness of his lyrics. Though the chord progression is relatively static, it would be challenging to find a single passage that doesn’t feel like something all its own, a distinct component with a unique message and texture. Despite this, Elverum’s choice to release “Microphones in 2020” as a single extended track makes a whole lot of sense. The tone is so intentionally set from the beginning (a seven-minute prelude of Elverum strumming before singing the first lyric) that it’s hard to imagine the song succeeding as anything other than what it is.
Despite the numerous links and references to Elverum’s past work, this is not a direct progression from anything released under the Microphones’ name during its five-year run at the turn of the century. This track is a reflection, and at times almost a seance, throughout which Elverum attempts to recall some of his deepest memories and thoughts, contextualizing them in the greater scheme of his life as a musician. When he speaks on his first recordings and early experiences touring, it feels as though he’s searching for meaning in what has become musical canon to listeners but which, to his description, is a “feeble attempt to make chaos seem organized.” This phrase seems just as apt in describing the track itself, which expands and contracts in and out of cohesiveness as Elverum re-experiences his life on the recording.
“Microphones in 2020” is best experienced holistically — that is, listened to while viewing Elverum’s “powerpoint karaoke slideshow” on YouTube, composed entirely of hand-placed pictures, sometimes relating to the topic of the lyrics. In this, arguably the song’s intended form, the viewer is offered a visual complement to the track’s autobiographical lyrics, further compelling you to sink deeply into the world Elverum has built. If this is indeed a collection of snapshots from Elverum’s own life, his journey from childhood to maturity has been strikingly well documented, to the immense benefit of the project.
Music such as this is tough to criticize, as criticism here seems to answer a question that was never asked to begin with. Yet, if there was any detraction from the enjoyability of “Microphones in 2020,” it would be how necessarily dependent your experience is on whether you’re familiar with the work, and furthermore the ideologies of Phil Elverum. This is certainly no casual listening experience, and even prior fans of the Microphones will likely be heading to the internet to decipher some of the references and callbacks latent in the song’s lyrics. Indeed, that seems to be the entire point — Phil Elverum is, again, no career musician. He lives this.