The unfolding biography of Phil Elverum’s life — which he has for years been telling under his Mount Eerie moniker, most exceptionally in a trilogy of albums released between 2017 and 2019 — has received its most sprawling chapter yet with the droning, avant-folk memoir Microphones in 2020. The album, actually a single 45-minute song, is built on a looping, slightly percussive but sedated guitar duet that nonchalantly races towards accents at the end of each phrase. This instrumentation remains the album’s perpetual force, changing slightly in intensity and occasionally inviting hints of percussion and feedback to enhance Elverum’s narrative, but otherwise strong and unwavering for its entire duration. After seven and a half uninterrupted minutes of this, Elverum’s voice blows in, as gentle and precious as ever: “The true state of all things / I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising.” With this, a lump may form in the throats of those familiar with Elverum’s recent history, from his wife’s quick battle with cancer that left him a widower and single parent, to his highly publicized, brief marriage to actress Michelle Williams, and the emotional battles he’s faced and broadcasted concurrently. With the release of Now Only after A Crow Looked at Me, and Lost Wisdom, Pt. 2 after both, not dying has become a unifying theme of this epoch of Elverum’s career.
In A Crow Looked At Me, Elverum told the story of his wife’s death in real time, recalling feelings and memories of the days, hours, and moments after her death. Here, under the Microphones handle, he uses an antipodal narrative device, recalling moments throughout his life in an immensely composed, stream-of-consciousness style. It’s a kind of Proustian journey through Elverum’s memories, and, stimulated by the chaos of his current life, he revisits moments when he was “twenty, or seventeen, or twenty-three.” He recalls washing dishes; he remembers a rainy day when he was wearing flip flops in a parking lot after watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the dollar theater; he shares some of his early inspirations like Red House Painters, Tori Amos, and The Cranberries. In a career marked by confessions, Elverum clearly has more yet to reveal. In the writing of his autobiography, Microphones in 2020 is both a stunning, literary poem and an entrancing song. His generosity is boundless. Tanner Stechnij
For an artist who’s been heavily characterized by certain aesthetic features of her work — namely, the gentle construction of her songs and overlapping choral vocals — for essentially the length of her career, Julianna Barwick has consistently recontextualized her sound in a number of exciting ways. Her mesmeric second album featured expanded percussion and instrumentation to ground the airiness of its vocals, producing an overall darker tone, while the incorporation of synths and field recordings on 2016’s Will resulted in a sound approaching eeriness. On her latest, Barwick is more collaborative, featuring harpist Mary Lattimore, Icelandic singer Jonsi, and electronic musician Nosaj Thing, and she continues to feature lyrics more and more prominently, making for what is possibly her most conventionally structured record yet.
Her previous three albums are terrific, in part, because they so effortlessly sustain an almost ineffable tenor, the contrasts in the sound driving the compositions forward and ultimately bringing it all about into harmony. Lacking this sort of consistency, Healing is a Miracle only comes alive in fits and starts. “Flowers,” which combines genuine falsetto and artificially pitched-up vocals over a heavy, throbbing synth, is the album’s easy standout, making more traditional sounding songs such as “Wishing Well” and the title track quickly recede from memory by comparison. Elsewhere, opener “Inspirit” and the collaborations with Jonsi and Nosaj Thing echo the brash extremity of “Flowers” in their treatment of spirited melodies with drone and borderline harsh effects. The musician’s latest is a difficult record to describe, like all of her others and, indeed, in the way of all unique pursuits — which is actually quite remarkable for an artist whose sound can so easily and lazily be pigeonholed as ethereal. But ultimately, despite the momentary highs, Barwick’s considerable adventurousness here simply doesn’t gel into as revelatory of a result as it has in the past. Alec Lane
Nobody broods quite like Bill Callahan. From his early work performed under the moniker of Smog, up to his most recent releases, the musician consistently exudes a dry, dark sense of feeling beyond what’s inspired by just his smooth, crooning tone. Gold Record, his latest effort, reflects a maturation of this certain feeling, processing as he does here various complex thoughts on settling down and the experience of aging that undoubtedly accompanies it. On “Pigeons,” Callahan accepts the condition of his mortality and his experiences in life, opening the album with verses featuring a young married couple asking him for advice. “The groom noticed the gold band on my left hand / and said ‘You got any advice for us, old man?’” This notion further progresses on “35” — “Used to be I saw myself on every single page / It was nice to know that my life had been lived before / But I can’t see myself in the books that I read anymore” — and completes itself on “As I Wander,” the album’s final track: “And I may have been wandering too long / In love with wandering, wandering, wandering love.”
What hasn’t changed is Callahan’s penchant for oddball storytelling delivered in song format, and the inclination most notably pops up here on “The Mackenzies,” a track about eating dinner with an older couple he just met after his car broke down near their home. These stories are as comfortable and lived-in (and, often, slightly askew) as Callahan’s style, which has been cultivated and refined across his long career. This time out, there’s a certain darkness that blankets these words, a lamentation for time’s passage that co-exists alongside an acceptance of that very reality. Callahan is, more than most, a lyrically-driven creator, and in that sense, Gold Record is the most logical next sonic step for the artist. So while it doesn’t contain the multitudes of last year’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, it’s still a meaningful entry in Callahan’s discography and an effective work in its own right, one that rewards more after several listens. Andrew Bosma
Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens wears a lot of hats on her stylish, sleek second album Inner Song, an inviting tech house-pop record connected by a vibe: in parts classy, dancey, and a bit cutesy. Coming off of her loose, frequently pretty self-titled debut, Kelly has tightened up her album-making, further establishing her identity as a subtle, minimalist producer and sweet singer/songstress. On Inner Song, Kelly plays the role of synth-popster with the Purity Ring-esque “L.I.N.E.,” a gorgeous and honest break-up song where she confesses “I’d rather be on my own / Gonna trust my speed and show him / Love Is Not Enough alone.” Her always ethereal vocals are here in harmony with aching, spacey keys that threaten to skew saccharine but ultimately hit the right sentiments thanks to Kelly’s ear for enticing, mature sounds. They’re often bright and bubbly — like in “Melt!,” a chirpy rain dance inspired by global warming and melting ice caps — but can also take on a strange tenor, dipping into obscure mystery, especially through repetition. “Re-Wild” is a nearly straight-forward alternative R&B track that would sound right at home with some of Kelela’s songs until it opts for a tonal switch-up in it’s repeating, paranoid outro featuring a warbling organ. The uncanny continues when John Cale delivers a spoken word poem based on the two’s shared Welsh heritage on “Corner of the Sky,” a sparse but insistent seven-minute centerpiece that keeps coming back to the evocative phrase, “Thank god the rain.”
The most cathartic and sweaty moment comes in “Night,” a sensual house track that’s delivers a compulsively gyrate-able bass drop between repeated phrases of “It feels so good to be alone” and “with you,” Kelly’s ethereal voice soaring with the final vowels. “Jeanette,” another highlight, is a fist-pumping, nostalgic instrumental that shares a name with Kelly’s beloved, late grandmother. As was the case with her debut, Kelly has crafted another perceptibly personal, electronic album that shows off her versatility within an ethereal, technically-assured sound that’s becoming recognizably hers. Tanner Stechnij
Angel Olsen is back, this time with a rework of 2019’s All Mirrors titled Whole New Mess. While this may sound like material more suited for a B-sides release, Olsen’s demonstrated commitment to progressing her sound results in a record that works as a worthwhile standalone listen, replete with some welcome introspection for the times we live in now.
All Mirrors was a huge sonic step for Olsen, jumping into cacophonous, horn-filled soundscapes with her timeless voice practically taking a step to the side in favor of the scenes she was creating. It was an album made to be heard in a crowded concert hall (and it indeed benefitted greatly from this context if you were fortunate to experience it). On Whole New Mess, these very same melodies are reworked into acoustic, vocal-forward mixes, notably fitting for an “at home with headphones” listen, as is the norm in our socially distant era. Whether this revisiting was planned before the pandemic or not, the end result testifies to its logic, and it feels particularly comforting in the landscape’s dearth of live shows.
Whole New Mess is an affectingly intimate record, the impression as if Olsen herself is performing in your living room. “(New Love) Cassette” and “(Summer Song)” remain the melodic standouts here, as they were on All Mirrors, though the change in backing music makes for a darker, more melancholic tone. In other words, given the sonic shift, it’s largely what you might expect from such an album, but executed to maximum effect: new music from Angel Olsen, distilled from the grain of old songs. And in listening to Whole New Mess, you can feel both that past and present distinctly, making for a wonderful and necessary, if not quite revolutionary, listen. Andrew Bosma