The Microphones - Microphones in 2020
Aug 7, 2020
At first I really wasn’t planning on writing a review for this, but at some point when I was listening, this album really engulfed my afternoon, really my whole day when I heard it.

Phil is giving us a record under a moniker that is essentially having a revival, a collective emotional outburst that relies heavily on past emotions, past experiences, and a long and excruciating transition from an earlier period in his passion to the man he’s become now. In the repetitive guitars and melodies in the beginning there is this uneasy, nervous sense of meditation. An amalgamation of Phil and his matchup against his inner demons, and his chronic pain that continues to hang over him like a dark cloud.

By the 10 minute mark where the vocals finally begin to kick in, Phil waxes poetic on some very disheartening thoughts:

“I keep on not dying,
The sun keeps on rising,
I remember my life as it’s just,
Some dreams that I don’t trust, burning off, laying thick,
A cargo that I haul”

Essentially captivating a lot of what Phil and his past musical endeavours have come to embrace. His music has always been a sturdy vessel of turmoil, stress, and depression itself. Having to roll out of bed and stare into the mirror, realizing you’re still a vehicle of blood, mind, and soul. In many ways, the most gutting thing isn’t the pain you’re experiencing, it’s the fact that you have to live with it as a whole. Pain is a burden meant to be carried, sometimes failed to be outweighed by joy itself. This verse in itself coupled with these looping, melancholic guitars early into the song really do come off to me as the pinnacle of The Microphones existence. A vessel of blood, mind, and the soul, all captured through sound and lyrics. Especially hearing this set of lines in particular:

“I wake up with the sun in my eyes,
The present moment tries,
But now I’m back to when I was 20”

It’s really...just, heartbreaking as fuck to hear that. This section in particular really does come off as like Phil watching all of the loose ends he once tied up slowly become undone again and it feels so helpless to even just hear something like that. The amount of struggle that has disturbed his life in entirety is indicative of a struggle that a lot of people have gone through, as a lot of the time progression in terms of things like mental health, financial struggle, or even just grief, can be completely set back no matter what. What adds to this helpless feeling is just how dejected Phil sounds as always. Belabouring these pain-soaked lines in his boy-ish, youthful delivery his singing has always had. Another quirk that elevates the overall experience of the album is actually the “slideshow” (series of snapped photos being laid out on camera) that accompanies the album in its video. They couple up fairly well with these lines:

“Trying to re-remind myself of something,
Learned then forgotten,
Countless sunrises,
Burying the things I’d figured out the day before”

“Again I’ll deny,
The blanketing sky,
The thing I just realized,
For probably the millionth time,
That walking with my knees trembling,
Is the the true state of all things”

Once again, there is that sense of unwinding progression, moving backwards. I can only imagine the amount of pain that gets escalated given how Phil is often travelling in these photographs, and chances are they’re photos and such from way back when. He probably never got a legitimate chance to dissect his issues until it came to the music. However there is also a feeling I interpret from these lines as well that I can apply to myself, and it’s sort of the impression that Phil is demonstrating a fragmented sense of reality in those lines, and it ties back to his line about his life being a series of dreams he doesn’t trust. A common theme in The Microphones discography is generally a sense of the fearful. There are countless quotable lyrics that only continue here that demonstrate almost a nervous fear or energy about moving forward yet trying not to forget yourself in the process. At some point, it feels like Phil lost himself in the time of writing this. Looping back to the point of fragmented reality and the slideshow, it feels like this collage of photos he’s showing his almost Phil marching backwards and revisiting periods of his life that he can now view in retrospect. It’s like he’s gaining, LEARNING from his past in a way that feels so raw and organic when paired up with this ever-so-slightly changing instrumentation. Even so, it isn’t long after where we’re almost hit with this moment of sheer optimism, Phil almost pouring himself out entirely:

“Going through the contents of my backpack,
Shaking out the dust,
To bring some empty space back,
Filling a long merch table with artifacts,
Looking back to see if i could draw a map,
That leads to now,
I remember where I was!”

This moment feels especially empowering as the moment he whines out that last line, there is spiking, brittle guitar chord that sets in. Jabbing with, or against, the words of Phil himself. Then there’s the following verse:

“When I was 20, or 17, or 23,
The disinterested sun would still rise every morning,
Same as now”

Now, there is much more to this verse afterwards, but in my eyes it feels like Phil is almost having a moment of clarity here. He’s reminiscing of his past routine, and how it almost feels no different than now. It’s like the recognition of a pattern, the pulling back of the carpet to realize that there is so much dirt untouched underneath. This moment of reiteration is punctuated by a rattling, blown out drum loop that swoops in, and really puts the song into a higher up gear. It feels like at this point, Phil has latched into a particular train of thought, a trip back to his old self. He’s recalling specific dates, it’s like he’s building himself back up, remembering his true sense of individuality captivated by these lines here:

“I stood glowing with ideas,
Of what I might try to convey,
With this music,
At that moment, my mind flashing like a blade,
A 22 year old in flip flops running in an empty mall parking lot lost in a martial arts fantasy,
It looks ridiculous now,
But the truth is that, alone there,
Something was formed”

15 minutes in, and it feels like Phil is set on continuing this old path of self-discovery. Trying to claw back everything he’d forgotten that forced him to fall back before his grace in his youth. In many of the photos too, you’ll notice Phil is openly transparent, while it may be something not worth reading into and it’s just how the photo was planned out, I almost feel like it further bolsters the impression of the fragmented self. Lost, but now back on the journey of solidifying his individuality through lyrics and sound, also backed up by these lines:

“Leaping off the mountain into ambiguity,
Falling slow,
As the end credits rolled,
I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace,
Distorted underneath distorted bass
Fog imbued with light and emptiness”

“Extravagant solitude invigorates,
I drove back to Olympia clear headed
And went back into the studio to resume whatever this thing is,
This spooling out repetitive
Decades long song string,
This river coursing through my life,
These wild swipes at meaning”

It’s about this point, we’re about halfway through the record. Phil is labouring on these nostalgic verses about his early music endeavours, once again reviving the atmosphere around his youth in what feels like an attempt to reconcile and smile once again at the person he was, despite his presumed issues. It’s such a bittersweet moment as he pairs both his struggles and triumphant moments in each verse. Usually making little references to his passion, and then almost knocking down with mentions of his “embarrassing early entries” of lyric-writing.
It isn’t long after though that we get hit with another set of lines, thriving in clarity:

“Night in Anacortes in the mid-90’s,
Oil tankers rumbling,
I stayed late recording every night,
Then I drove back to my parents house,
My headlights through the trees,
Along Heart Lake Road,
Winding the dark slope,
Beneath Mount Erie,
I was already who I am!”

Then, not long after, Phil makes a mention of what his life was like at the time in his 20's, and how he dreamt that anything was permanent. After seeing Stereolab in Bellingham, he makes a comment about “bringing home belief that I [he] could create eternity”. It’s after that I kind of see the ultimate connection between most of what Phil is saying. Time and time again he is making mentions of the overall consistency of his being. His passion for music, his youthful energy that lit his creative fuse, and the centres of catharsis that he otherwise held close to his heart.By 2/3 of the way through the song, Phil is really just striking upon the entirety of The Microphone’s existence, the rise and fall of, what I would consider to be one of the greatest discographies of all time. The way he just goes into such phenomenal detail about every section, every little increment of the activity of the project is so familiar. It’s like every listener is subject to a reading session at a public library, and Phil is reading out of a book that we're all entranced by. As much as this feels like a reiteration of personal discovery, it also feels like Phil giving a generous tribute to such an important aspect of his life that The Microphones played into. It’s both heart-wrenching yet so relaxing to know that Phil is just as much, if not MORE enthralled by his endeavours than any listener could be. Parts of his being were formed simply by allowing his life to be shifted by the power of his interest, and it’s so beautiful, even as you’re not even all the way through the record, you could emphasize with Phil on the burning fire that is his love for music and expression. Not just for music either, but nature itself and the role it played too in the process of creation. I wanna capitalize on that statement because I think what Phil goes into depth about in and out on this record is super important. It wasn’t just the music he had an absolute passion for, but life itself. Despite everything, Phil held on to so many trips out to the ocean, nights with friends, and existential moments that were brought to the light simply by becoming the voice of the wind, mountains, and water he actively encompassed in his music then and his music now. As an artist, Phil becomes symbolic of motivation itself. Recognizing that his endeavours weren’t just some sparks of enthusiasm, but his endeavours were indicative of his life itself. Pouring his blood, mind, and soul into everything he did. At some point, when Phil discontinued The Microphones for a time. He essentially made the conscious decision to recognize that some things don’t last forever, and that things are always changing for him. Except for when he speaks these lines toward the end of the record:

“I never used to think I’d still be sitting here at 41,
To breathe calmly through the waves,
But nothing’s really changed in this effort that never ends”

“I’m still standing in the weather,
Looking for meaning in the giant meaningless,
Days of love and loss repeatedly waterfalling down,
And the sun,
Relentlessly rises still,
It seems like i’ll never not lose wisdom,
Constantly re-learning all the basics,
Never recognizing any faces”

This is the epitome of the ideas of eternity, youth, and passion that Phil mulled over in its entirety on this record. He boils down everything he’s learned about life, being a human, and being himself, into this record alone. All nice and packaged up, it seems like by the end of everything, Phil is still holding on. Still moving forward. Still eager to pour his heart into everything even if it’s vulnerable, prone to falling apart, and may only last so long. To hear a man like Phil Elverum, once again, dump every fibre of his being into something after being knocked down so many times and still finding the time to cap off the tenure of something as monumental as The Microphones so reassuring in a way. I’ve said it so many times, but I am so glad Phil Elverum exists. Dissecting, applying, and digesting everything the man has done has given an incomprehensible amount of joy to me and most likely others. In many ways, Phil’s journey of humanity and life being told through his career in 45 minutes is one of the most universally comforting things I think any human being could create.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This specific sense of eternity and unwavering love is something that should permeate through everyone person at least once in life.

Thank you once again Phil, for creating an experience like no other.
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