Dogme Year Zero: Microphones in 2020

by Ruairí McCann

Knowing no one understands these songs,
I try to sing them clearer.
Even though no one has ever asked:
"What does Mount Eerie mean?"
I have tried to repeatedly explain
In complicated songs.

But tonight, we will find out.
I know no one.
And no one knows me.

Those are the opening lyrics of “No Flashlight”: Songs of the Fulfilled Night (2005). The first album Phil Elverum released as ‘Mount Eerie’, the mantle he took up after establishing himself as ‘The Microphones’ with his first four albums, among other releases. It is a curious way to launch a new endeavour. The sacrificial bottle a few spare words, which are self-effacing, instead of assured; on a winding course, instead of being bold and to the point. They therefore get right to the root of an artist who has been one of the most committedly introspective of this century. His body of work a self-conscious and burrowing continuum, constantly reaching back and revising, lyrically and musically, as an outlet and test of a deeply held animist spirituality and nagging preoccupations about the nature, or very possibility, of an identifiable self, capable and culpable of personal expression.

This ‘string’ of self-discovery has reached its most concentrated form in this new LP, and film. Elverum’s past, as it was or still can be, is an explicitly expansive yet blinkered point of ponderance, stretched across the span of a single 44 minute track, called Microphones in 2020 and credited to The Microphones. Its genesis was a self-imposed challenge with the dual goal of writing one song that was exceptionally long and on the theme of memory. Out of this initially casual ferment, Elverum has made a carefully considered and controlled piece of music that serves as an exploratory state of union. Signalled by its both accurately and deceptively straightforward title and its status as first major work released under his Microphones moniker in seventeen years—he has revived it for stray singles and compilations, but otherwise, until now, it has laid dormant.

This is no reunion or revival, cynically embarked to tap into the humongous cultural and commercial cache that is the nostalgia industry. Instead, expounding on and building from one refrain, Elverum builds a sung reflection over this changeover from Microphones to Mount Eerie and the music, lyrics, influences, intentions, objects and experiences behind the former. All the while questioning the very inclination and ability to attach any fixed meaning to this period of time, which he demarcates as existing between 1995, when he was 17 and first putting the name ‘Microphones’ on cassettes, and late 2002, where an epiphany on the straits of Norway brought Mount Eerie into being.  Despite the set time period, his recollections are non-chronological, as the search for resonance brings him back to his childhood and motions forward towards the present.

The raga over which this rumination and semi-narrative driven vocal line pulses is a single acoustic guitar riff. Or rather a single layering of several, slightly different but interlocking guitar lines, with a more rhythmic, bassier current humming low in the mix, another, higher key and more variable one on top, while other bits and pieces pass from channel to channel. It is all mixed almost imperceptibly together, and allowed to play out without accompaniment, again and again, for the first 8 minutes, before Elverum’s voice or any other instrument pipes in.

The combination of the on-the-surface simplicity and its complex, spacious arrangement is hypnotizing. And functioning as the base instrumentation, it defines and largely limits both the rhythm and the melody of the entire song, which, despite its length and its far reaches, is ultimately a single tightly constructed composition, rather than a barely organized medley.

Eventually other instrumentation and elements; electric guitar, bass, drums, distortion, piano and organ, erupt and drift, in and out of place, playing incrementally and individually or in pairs. These other instruments take their time in becoming conventional lead or backing instruments. Those roles are reserved for the final half, when the acoustic guitar is submerged under a beautiful piano-heralded noise-and-organ-led interlude, and then interspersed with a glued together, rock band dynamic.

For the most part, these other instruments are used as powerful accents, that swell over the steady course of acoustic guitar and voice. Underlining when clarity have been reached in the lyrics, with breakthroughs or a new part of the song swept away or announced with a guitar slide or when rushing cymbals and distortion reach their twinned high tide and dissipate. The rhythmic pulse of a kick drum or bass, timed to Elverum’s vocals as he sings, punch up specific landmarks in his artistic developments. These moments though, while key and dramatic, are, at the same time, more than a touch ambiguous, in that they generally turn on a heel midway from being clear in language and point of reference, to expressions more abstract and associative.

Like the time where, after witnessing all the equanimity and martial plus and equals moral finesse on display in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, caught during a ‘rainy matinee’ in 2001, Elverum states:

I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace,
Buried underneath distorted bass
Fog imbued with light and emptiness.

Or later, again in 2001, while he was recording The Glow Pt. 2 (2001).

The things I wanted to communicate had to do
With finding out how to break out from seeing
Only the inside of reflected ocean on the sky

The tension here in these two examples, between starting confidently and ending someplace fuzzier, is a microcosm of the larger tension at work not only in the album, in its bid to, and tiptoeing around, the act of remembering, but also Elverum’s development as a lyricist on a wider scale.

Track from his very first label release to now, and you will see an increasing willingness to dive into the contradiction at heart. That being his beliefs in the interconnectivity of existence and his status as a human, with foibles and earthly concerns, and as an artist, an often anti-democratic and individualist being. For a time, the former won out, with a will to abstraction that became an increasingly important feature of his work during The Microphones and then was doubled down on with the early Mount Eerie releases. However, A Crow Looked At Me (2017) represents another seachange. The life-altering tragedy that underpinned that album provoked a reconciliation in his art, as he adopted a hyper-specific, diaristic kind of lyric writing infused with his cosmic outlook.

Microphones in 2020 represents a culmination of his approach, with its expert modulation between casual, more formally poetic and almost essayistic registers. There are moments where the word choice and self-deprecating self-dissection is more reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and that writer’s other very compressed and exact yet highly personal and revealing non-fiction work, than most of the lyricism affixed with the descriptors ‘confessional’ or ‘authentic’.

To coincide with the album’s release, Elverum himself made a Framptonesque film and released it to YouTube. It is fairly unassuming work. All contained in one, unmoving shot; a top down, close-up view of a surface covered in what looks like a white butcher or crepe papered surface, on which a hand begins to pile up photos, one by one. They show Elverum, his friends and family, and the nature and other spots in and around Anacortes and other cities. These photos were all taken casually, presumably by Elverum and others, between 1995 and 2002, though mimicking the album’s reach we see ones from well before and beyond too. Every once and awhile the pile is swept away and a new one is started. Meanwhile the album plays out, with the lyrics rolling by along the bottom of the screen.

Elverum intricately links the experience, of both the film and album, by setting the pace of the photos’ placement to the song’s time signature. There is then this dance to and fro, between clarity and unclarity, decisiveness and indecisiveness, playing out within and across these two works. For instance, every image of Elverum is blurred, until his voice is introduced. The photos increasingly line up as fitting descriptions of what is being sung about, from the moon to the author’s pre-teen self, while at other times the connection seems more imaginative, or mysterious.

Elverum has stated that he once strongly considered pursuing filmmaking instead of music and that he sees this work as potentially a new beginning. Whether it will be or not, both album and film make for a deceptively simple and profoundly elusive couple, and a cornerstone in a brilliant career.

Ruairí McCann is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from University College Dublin and Film Studies (MA) from Queen’s University Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written  for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine and Little White Lies.

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