Microphones in 2020


I imagine that for people who are successful enough in life to leave a dent on the world at large, there comes a day when you realise what the headline of your obituary will read. John Conway, mathematician and inventor of Game of Life (a famous computational simulation), tragically succumbed to the Coronavirus earlier this year. Game of Life is both fascinating and of genuine importance to computational theory - and yet when the topic was raised, Conway himself rather resented it, feeling that it overshadowed his more impressive achievements. Yet it must be said that within academia his plentiful contributions across many fields did indeed have a great deal of recognition. I think the perhaps more macabre explanation for the resentment Conway felt towards Game of Life was this; that one day he realised that the first line of his obituary would introduce him just as I have done - 'John Conway, mathematician and inventor of Game of Life...'. I can only imagine that such an apprehension must weigh heavy on the soul. It is a similar apprehension that Phil Elverum confronts in his new record, `Microphones in 2020`. This LP has been subject to immense anticipation for two reasons. The first is that the entire album is composed of just one song. The second is that it is the first in 17 years to be released under the name 'The Microphones'. Before this one, records released by Elverum since 2003 had been under the name 'Mount Eerie' (which, confusingly, was also the name of the last Microphones LP). Under that moniker, he swapped screaming lo-fi dissonance for a pared-back acoustic sound, and traded abstract poetics for unblunted realism. Then, in 2016, acute tragedy struck, as Phil lost his wife - the father of his daughter - to pancreatic cancer. It took the indescribable pain of this loss to do the minimal Mount Eerie sound true justice, as in the following year Elverum released A Crow Looked At Me, an unflinchingly autobiographical album with a searing emotional intensity that has to be felt to be believed. Even today with the benefit of temporal distance, it remains one of the most remarkable records of the last decade. And yet, although surely very many decades distant, I can say with modest certainty that Phil Elverum's obituary will not introduce him as the man behind 'Mount Eerie', or even as the creator of 'A Crow Looked At Me'. For he is a man with his own 'Game of Life' around his shoulders, in the form of a record he made so long ago as to be nearly closer to his birth than to the present. I am of course talking about the seminal Microphones release 'The Glow Pt. 2' - the indie folk record with the earnest looking elephant on the cover that redefined a genre and to this day remains the high water mark of lo-fi production. For good reason, the album has long been inducted into the very highest echelon of the indie music canon. For good reason, it is most likely the album for which Phil Elverum will best be remembered. One imagines he resents that. In fact, one needn't imagine, for this new LP is less a Microphones album in the traditional sense and more a Microphones documentary. In autobiographical fashion, but reclaiming a touch of the flair for metaphor that so imbued the Microphones of yore, Elverum spins a yarn from his childhood, through his young adulthood, lingering more than a little wistfully on the Microphones years, before rushing foward to the present, nigh on twenty years removed from 'The Glow Pt. 2'. Even while the album is peppered with reference to that iconic release, recalling many of its most iconic lyrics, the overriding theme is one of rejecting the distinctions made between record-and-record and between name-and-name. As he sees it, the music that he has written, played, and sung, from adolescence to the cusp of middle age, is a single current - a river with no interruption; a waterfall where neither beginning nor end are of particular consequence. His is a singular lifelong project to comprehend the infinite with songs that tell of the wind and that are sung the trees. And yet, at least a little part of me rejects this narrative. Perhaps it is because I am too attached to 'The Glow Pt. 2' as a standalone work - that hour and a bit of musical sublimity that meets with noise and melody and treats those two imposters just the same. I am, after all, as culpable as anyone in the canonisation of 'The Glow Pt. 2' - as much as I like the other Microphones records, I've never used any of their covers as profile pictures (though in fairness, none of them fit anywhere near as well into a Facebook bubble as that elephant does). To be honest, though, I'm not entirely convinced Elverum doesn't share my feelings at least a little bit. After-all, for all his talk of rivers and waterfalls, the centre of gravity of the retrospective 'Microphones in 2020' is undoubtably that one specific release. The climax of this new LP, which spans three-quarters of an hour, comes with the reprisal of the near-legendary line from 'The Glow Pt. 2's titular track - 'I took my shirt off in the yard'. The meaning is unchanged - after two decades Elverum still seeks to be immersed in nature, to be overawed and engulfed by it, to feel insignificant in its midst. No doubt he feels rather distant from the older record now, and yet one senses that he still agrees with what it has to say. Very few artists could make an entire LP focused entirely on their own career and have it not seem just a tad self-indulgent, and there's a small part of me that isn't entirely sure Elverum has pulled it off (and no, the irony of turning a critical eye towards self-indulgence a thousand words into a blogpost is not lost on me). But I'm more than willing to indulge his indulgence, in large part because of the dear love I have for the Microphones project, and in larger part still because of just how amazing this record sounds. When it's noisy, it howls and shrieks and sweeps you up in its ravages. When it's calmer, it still retains the power to mesmerise, to lull, and to command attention. The record starts with that most quintessential Microphones trope - the same few chords repeated for minutes on end, always perfectly the same and yet somehow always changing, tuning the listener in to the slightest tremors of flux and wax and wane. To the adherents who until a few months ago had good reason to believe there would never be another Microphones album again, this LP is like meeting an old friend and finding that they still laugh in just the same way. This really is a wonderful record, and I hope it signals the relighting of the Microphones flame for years to come, for the Microphones by any other name does not sound quite as sweet.
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