Time & Identity: Phil Elverum’s 2020

Microphones in 2020 is the latest release from Washington-based songwriter and visual artist Phil Elverum. Today he’s more commonly known for his work under the prolific Mount Eerie alias, but twenty years ago he came of prominence spearheading the lo-fi indie band The Microphones, releasing a series of albums that now hold cult classic status.

The plainly titled Microphones in 2020 represents the first release for seventeen years under that name, one which listeners like myself had naively come to assume was defunct and relegated to Elverum’s past. For no particular reason, Elverum decided to play a small gig as The Microphones last year. The rapturous response from the audience suggested an affectation for nostalgia, prompting him to resurrect the guise through an examination of past identities.

To hear him tell it, Elverum happened upon two guitar chords that he realised he could play at length and not get bored of after an hour. As such Microphones in 2020 is presented as a single song running 44 minutes and 44 seconds in length. Those chords form the groundwork for the song; the first eight minutes consist of wordless strumming, building a hypnotic mantra before any vocals are introduced. When the first words arrive the rhythm feels so entrenched it’s impossible to imagine any other route. Sustaining the listener’s attention over such a drawn out piece is no meat feat, yet an exercise in duration (and patience) is precisely what Elverum achieves by doubling down and burrowing into the databank of his own memory.

Elverum’s musical position has always been that of an explorer with words as coordinates that map a lifelong journey seeking truth and wisdom from one’s surroundings. At the end of 2020, Elverum distils his vocation into something almost incidental, describing all he’s ever sung as “about the same thing: standing on the ground looking around, basically.”

The mood of the piece reflects a sort of archived recollection process, a plumbing of the murky depths of Elverum’s history around the turn of the century, contrasting profound examinations on those memories — “the true state of all things” — and ceaselessly questioning the meaning (or meaningless) of the present.

For listeners more familiar with Mount Eerie, there will be points across these 44 minutes where they contextualise The Microphones in line with Elverum’s other work over the last decade. The divide between those two names — or rather, identities — is surmised perfectly by Elverum in an anecdote that hints at a recurring connection with the natural world:

At the very end of 2002, I took “the Microphones” name and crumpled it up
And burned it in a cave on the frozen edge of northern Norway
I made a boundary between two eras of my life
A feeble gesture at making chaos seem organized
The roaring river carves on, laughing at my efforts
While the idea of something called “Mount Eerie” engulfed me
And time refuses to stop

A decade removed from The Microphones, Elverum released Clear Moon under the Mount Eerie moniker, the first of two albums in 2012 presented as aesthetic and thematic explorations of nature and its elemental forces. The second, Ocean Roar, arrived a few months later. Clear Moon is characterised by a sound that feels entirely organic, vocals washing over acoustic guitar in hushed hypnotism and bristling with all the vitality of fresh spring grass.

Ocean Roar functions as a counterpoint to the tranquility of Clear Moon, all gnarly guitars and thick walls of fog moving across time and craggy rock formations. For the listener it’s clearly a more challenging experience, but there’s great beauty to be found as its distortions swell and surge with the tide. If 2020 is built on the foundation of introspection, these dual Mount Eerie albums function as sort of outward-looking environmental studies.

Both albums elevate the idea that exploring the boundaries of music — and how it can interpret that which we find existing in the natural world — is tantamount to our enjoyment of it. They were preceded in 2009 by Wind’s Poem, a collection of songs inspired by black metal that gave rise to Elverum’s observations of the elemental force of wind, one where he described its never-ending cycle as an “invisible river.”

The duality of wind as both a destructive and dispersive force is an accurate lens through which to view the continuous rebirth of Elverum’s craft as an artist. Wind’s Poem, then, acted as a clearing device, moving Elverum on from his lo-fi foundations and into territory where he would explore sound more ruthlessly than he had before.

Despite Elverum’s two main stage names working as a divide, the personal tragedy he experienced in 2016 has served as the main line in the sand between his life now and the Elverum of before. There’s a certain irony to how the passing of his wife, multi-disciplinary artist Geneviève Castrée, increased his public exposure. In 2017 he released A Crow Looked At Me, a brutal and unflinching account of his experience in the immediate aftermath of her death, recorded in the room in which she died and composed using her instruments. The album surely holds as one of the most important statements on the portrayal of grief ever and invited comparisons to Joan Didion’s classic memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Many reviewers found it difficult to quantify and judge accurately since the subject matter completely overwhelmed the emotions, compromising the ability to critique it on musical grounds alone. Its acoustics and vocals feel more like the improvised ramblings of a man in the throes of internal chaos, recorded in real time single takes.

Less than a year later arrived Now Only, another collection of songs that came from the outpouring of grief in response to Castrée’s passing. This time, faint melodies emerged and humour crept in like shafts of struggling winter light. Progress was slow but noticeable.

Castrée’s death understandably marked the biggest personal shift in Elverum’s music, mythologising everything that came before. The present became much more tangible, compartmentalising his earlier work to another time — perhaps another lifetime. In the wake of such unspeakable tragedy, the Elverum of those early records no longer really existed.

It’s perhaps not surprising that, regardless of which guise he’s releasing music under, Elverum’s rich lyricism plays out in its own sort of imagined reality. Grammar and language become ever so slightly distorted, taking on new meaning and existing in its own sort of mirrored universe.

Elverum was inspired to release music under the Mount Eerie moniker in tribute to Mount Erie, a mountain in Skagit County, Washington — close to where he’s called home in Anacortes for decades. The reason why Elverum chose to add an extra ‘e’ to the name remains a mystery, yet the truth becomes even more intriguing if we consider the fact that Elverum’s full birth name is actually Phil Whitman Elvrum. In the early 2000s he changed his surname, adding an extra letter ‘e’ in the same way he created a new name from a nearby mountain. Elverum is the name of a small town in Innlandet county, Norway, and Google searches for Mount Erie and Phil Elvrum suggest — rather amusingly — corrections to what have become the more popular of the two searches.

Delving deeper into Elverum’s history reveals a precise use of letters and words that suggest an attempt to invent a new language through music. On Clear Moon, the song The Place Lives is followed by The Place I Live, the former documenting the landscape of Elverum’s surroundings, the latter doing the same while subjectivity creeps in. On the same album, not one but two instrumental interludes are titled (something). The aforementioned Wind’s Poem and the 2015 album Sauna also feature songs called (something), distinguished by parentheses. This continuity across albums speaks to a wider thematic consistency tying Elverum’s music to the earth, or else an unknowable entity — one which his music is constantly seeking, probing, examining.

Elverum has run his own record label for years, releasing all Mount Eerie and The Microphones albums through P.W. Elverum and Sun (the name itself a play on words for “and Son,” the centuries old tradition of proud businesses appending their names when family descendants become company co-owners). When finishing a live set, Elverum often heads to the back of the auditorium to man his own merchandise stall.

Microphones in 2020 was accompanied by a visual essay on YouTube that consists of a static shot of Elverum placing hundreds of photographs into the frame on top of one another with the song lyrics laid on top like subtitles. The photographs have been carefully curated in a way that syncs with the lyrical content of his words.

One can only imagine how nostalgic this process was.

In some sense this mix of visual imagery and lyrics is one of the most simple yet effective ways to present the theme of this new work. At the end of the song Elverum states how he will go on forever singing this song, that it never ends. He reaches a realisation by this point that seems to suggest that Mount Eerie and The Microphones are one and the same, that both exist within him at the same time because the questions he probes across both names remain the same, as unwavering as his gaze across all 44 minutes. The present moment burns. There’s no end.