“The Microphones was completed, or at least at a good stopping point. I did it because I am ready for new things. I am new.” – Phil Elverum, 2003.
At the conclusion of Mount Eerie, The Microphones’ final album, Phil Elverum met the Universe, and saw that its “face looks just like” his own. As a culmination of his work over the previous half-decade, nothing could have seemed more of “a good stopping point”. At times, it is hard not to think that the Microphones’ career was meticulously planned out in advance, always leading toward this redemptive moment, his rebirth.
Over the course of 2013, Elverum has been reissuing the four full-length LPs of The Microphones - Don’t Wake Me Up, It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water, The Glow pt. 2 and Mount Eerie - plus the singles and rarities collection Song Islands. Listening to these records in chronological order and in close proximity, it is remarkable how cohesive and holistic the Microphones’ body of work feels. Elverum’s themes remain so steady, his ideas so tightly interwoven across them that they more feel like a single, lengthy composition made up of several movements than a disparate collection of albums.
The notion of variation obviously has a long history in classical music, but rarely has a composer of “popular” music utilised the technique to such great effect. Ideas and concepts, both lyrical and musical, recur within and between albums, sometimes so subtly that you wonder if it was even intentional. Buried deep beneath the feedback and static opening of ‘The Sun’, the first track on Mount Eerie, the riff from the opening track of their previous record resonates. Like a ghostly apparition or a half-forgotten memory, it provides a link to their past, a reminder that, in some way, this is all connected.
The triptych of songs ‘I’ll Be in the Air’, ‘You Were in the Air’ and ‘You’ll Be in the Air’, which begins on Don’t Wake Me Up and concludes on The Glow pt. 2, is the most obvious example of Elverum developing a single idea over the course of several albums.
The Glow pt. 2 is unquestionably the Microphones best-known and well-regarded album (it was named the best album of 2001 by Pitchfork, and later placed highly in their end-of-decade list), but it makes sense for newcomers to start there for other reasons. By the time of its release, Microphones fans were no strangers to multi-part songs and elliptical titles – such as Don’t Wake Me Up’s ‘Where It’s Hotter pt.3’, which, until the release of Song Islands, had no parts one or two – but in titling The Glow pt. 2 after the sequel to the magnificent stand-out of It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water, Elverum was openly stating the deeper connections that run through his work. As an album taken on its own merits, it is, quite rightly, recognised as an essential work of modern indie, but it is also the crucial centre-piece of the Microphones’ canon.
It is on the The Glow that the over-arching themes of the Microphones are most carefully examined. Though Elverum has always asked the big questions, and given them big answers, it is arguable that there are only two themes of real importance to the Microphones: the natural world, and the body. In some way or another, nearly every Microphones song is about the dichotomy between the constraints of the latter and the limitless, infinite freedom of the former.
There are many words to which Elverum returns, and most of them can be placed into one of those two categories. “Size”, “shape”, “blood”: frequently used as metaphor, euphemism or synecdoche for the body. Then, “ocean”, “wind”, “air”, “clouds”: the violent, destructive, and eternal forces of nature, which contrast with the insignificant transience of the human body. This is perhaps at its clearest on ‘I Felt My Size’, with Elverum’s lament “I closed my eyes, I felt my size… I just wanted more, but I’m small”, but recurs frequently as a theme across all five LPs.
The use of euphemistic phrases to describe the condition of being a body, constrained by “your size”, “your shape”, functions as a device to distance “the self” from the body that contains it. Several Microphones songs are built around narrative fantasies of becoming free of physical form — It Was Hot’s ‘The Pull’ makes death into an absolving liberation (“my body stopped moving, it quickly got cold/I made my escape through exhaling lungs and watched my body run away”), while on The Glow’s ‘I Want Wind to Blow’, he dreams of a gale that will “blow my clothes off me, sweep me off my feet, take me up, not bring me back” — but it is on Mount Eerie where this theme reaches its apex.
Ostensibly, the five tracks of the album tell the story of a man separated from his body, being washed down canyons and blown and solar winds, until he confronts the “beautiful black… unveiled” face of the universe, which, as mentioned before, turns out to be his own. It would do a disservice to Elverum’s magnificently poetic lyrics to attempt to pin a meaning to Mount Eerie, but, at the very least, it is perhaps interesting to note that in its aftermath he chose Mount Eerie as the stage name for the next phase of his career, as he went found a new sense of freedom with regards to his artistic expression.
Musically, the Microphones always emphasise a certain physicality. Songs often transform, suddenly and viscerally, from a bare acoustic guitar, on which the silence is as important as the sound, into an overpowering wall of distortion and static. On several occasions the instrumentation and production methods self-consciously seem to remind us of our – or Elverum’s – physical presence. ‘I Want Wind to Blow’ opens with the tempo of a human heartbeat being picked out on an acoustic guitar, while ‘Organs’, the closing track from the same album, presents a Sunn o)))-style escalation of noise which has to be listened to loudly to appreciate, to be felt as a corporeal force.
Elverum’s website describes last year’s pair of Mount Eerie albums, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, as “a pair of records exploring a living place as a modern questioning person, walking around and looking at things for 80 or so years before disbanding back into dirt.” This may not sound too dissimilar from the themes discussed here, but the “living place” line is key. On the opening track to Clear Moon, Elverum establishes his manifesto: “I go on describing this place, and the way it feels to live and die.” The following two tracks are called ‘The Place Lives’ and ‘The Place I Live’. As Mount Eerie, “this place” now refers to a wider locality than simply the boundaries of Elverum’s body. The geographical specificity of his hometown of Anacortes, Washington, and the frequency with which he now describes physical features of the landscapes suggest a slight change in focus from his earlier work.
Casting off the band’s name was not arbitrary and the shift in thematic focus is clear. Elverum marked out this period as “The Microphones era”, and has hermetically sealed it, leaving a time capsule of at least one stone-cold classic, and four other records which, at the very least, offer a fascinating insight into the early work of one of the most interesting artists working today. His recent music finds him still overawed by the universe, but perhaps more comfortable with his own transience within it.