On Microphones in 2020, Phil Elverum, known for his work as The Microphones and Mount Eerie, dives headfirst into a single, 44-minute retrospective song about the entwined nature of his life and career. The project is a boring, narcissistic lo-fi slog that goes through one ear and out the other. It is also a stunning treatise on art and the passage of time that perpetually hangs onto the listener.
Nothing changes for seven minutes: The guitar plays the same two chords, each one taking up plenty of space before passing the song off to the other. It is a tiresome repetition, and the listener may frustratedly demand that Elverum get to the point.
The thing about Microphones in 2020 is that it’s not really about getting to the point. In fact, the core concept of the album, borne out of its latter half, is that time simply flows unwavering. The guitar, like time, refuses to cease its endless march, proceeding without destination.
After the wordless infancy of the album’s opening, its following moments are appropriately juvenile — when Elverum sings, his rhymes are simple and repetitive. His thoughts are those of a pretentious, precocious teenager. The project could have been conjured up in his bedroom in an hour. It screams Seattle hipster. It appeals to that very white UC Berkeley student who is privileged enough to sail through life. The beginning is artsy, and not in an endearing way. Elverum’s monotonous singing and his long, repetitive patterns offer plenty of opportunities for boredom, or to simply turn the record off. It is self-referential, self-serving and self-interested.
Past the roaring guitars of teenage angst and the drums of young adulthood emerge the sounds Elverum is famous for, described by the singer as “fog imbued with light and emptiness.” Over time, the drums and cymbals that once crashed and raged soften and mature. Elverum’s tone toward the culture in which he has lived shifts between referential and mocking. Its nose-in-the-air attitude evaporates. As the song stretches, it is easier to appreciate, and there is an internal nostalgia for the song’s simple opening.
The tone of Microphones in 2020 is light for an artist whose most famous albums have been about breakups and cancer. Though Elverum does sing of darkness and despair — he tells the startling story of holding his naked brother over a fire to dry him off — such somber topics are less prevalent here than in his previous work.
His previous work still makes its way into this new project, however. Whenever it is referenced, it is understood to serve Elverum’s larger commentary about the nature of life — in a way, its chaos is predictable. The churning instrumentation emphasizes lyrical callbacks to old songs and older stories.
These callbacks don’t tell the album’s whole story, however, and that’s by design. Music simply cannot tell the whole story of life. Not everyone has the luxury of living life like it’s an art installation. Though Elverum often writes like a college-aged co-op hopper, his claims of a personal narrative are understandably incomplete.
On Microphones in 2020, Elverum tackles his own naivety, tearing down the notion that life is an individualistic saga. Though he has long used art for self-expression, he uses the album as an opportunity to look into the conflict between himself as an artist and as a man.
What Elverum seems to appreciate is that it is not a sin to be boring or unremarkable, and he celebrates mundanity and absurdity at every opportunity. He waxes poetic about matinees, recording equipment and diving into lakes; the world Elverum creates is a dreary one, made compelling by its own quotidian minutiae.
Microphones in 2020 is hard to parse. Its nature defies dissection, a singular song difficult to accurately split into pieces. It is so personal, so intimate and yet so insufferably distant. It is repetitive, cyclic, yet serene and beautiful. Perhaps its insight will fade with time, but, as Elverum notes, so do we.