The Microphones Evoke Religious Experience in Brooklyn Church
Late Tuesday night, in an historic cathedral in Brooklyn Heights, Phil Elverum held midnight mass. There wasn’t a single open pew at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church, whose halls have been consecrated by the likes of Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, and others, and where Jeff Buckley’s memorial service took place in 1997. Elverum, with opener Emily Sprague of Florist, had sold out both of the evening’s two set times, and people had been queuing for over an hour in the cold. By the time they opened the doors, the line stretched around an entire city block.
In August 2020, almost seventeen years after his last release under the Microphones moniker, Elverum released a forty-five minute single-track album––“one long song recorded nowhere” say his liner notes. Despite its spare two-chord progression (if it can be called that), the composition is far from simple; the rawboned instrumentation allows for the jagged intimacy of his monologue, which feels like leafing through a diary retrieved from a house fire. It teems with self-reference and intratextuality across Elverum’s expansive oeuvre, alluding to old lines, projects, motifs, and finally, to itself, “So what if I label this song ‘Microphones in 2020’”? he asks in its final minutes.
After over a year of uncertainty, he’s finally taken the record on the road. He kicked off tour on the West Coast, and will conclude the US dates in Washington D.C. on March 10th. It wasn’t immediately clear from the announcements whether Elverum would be playing old Microphones songs, a mixed set, or something else entirely, but by the time he’d performed in California and Washington, word had reached Reddit forums, and fans were even more eager for what might’ve been their only chance to see the experimental folk-opera live.
Emily Sprague took the stage a little after 10pm, in a tie-dye shirt and jeans, wielding a mug of hot tea, the bag still steeping. She played a short solo set, three old songs and two new––Florist is expected to release a new record this year––and enchanted the crowd with the delicate warmth characteristic of her music. Despite her songs’ preoccupation with death, they’re bright and precious. “I’m really, really, really happy to be here,” she beamed at the outset. When she finished, with a wave––“Thanks, bye!”-–she took her tea and returned to her seat in the darkened bay.
After a few minutes of transitional house music, Phil Elverum and collaborator Jay Blackinton walked casually onto the platform––it seemed a pretense of casualness was the theme of the evening, though there was nothing casual about the environment––Elverum in a red graphic T-shirt and khakis, Blackinton in all black. Tentative welcoming claps swept the pews, but the crowd seemed to be cautiously negotiating with the setting, as if unsure how much rowdiness was couth. Unaccustomed to witnessing a punk-adjacent performance in a holy space, or perhaps not used to holy spaces at all.
Elverum stepped toward the mic and looked out at the congregation, then skyward where the ornate vaulted ceiling met rows of stained glass, the sliver moon peeking through in the wings. After a few seconds of rapt silence a grin crept across his face. “Hm,” he said, his curiosity tinged with mischief. His smile widened. The crowd erupted in another round of applause, more confident now, decreasingly wary of the sanctity. “Thank you,” he said, nodding. “Pretty good claps.” He and Blackinton exchanged something unspoken, and then he said, “We’re going to play now,” before laughing at himself, “this part is so awkward every time.” He stepped away from the mic stand, and began to strum. Blackinton took a seat beside him. As is true of the recorded song, bathed in undulating magenta light, Elverum and Blackinton spiraled F#m and Dmaj7 for nearly ten minutes before Elverum moved to the lip of the stage and began to sing.
“The true state of all things: I keep on not dying.” The aphorism sounded different in a house of worship, no longer a confession but a sermon. It seemed impossible not to receive his words as a kind of scripture. His voice, its familiar pleading edge, humanly searched for its bearings in the acoustics of the vast cavern. Eventually Blackinton lowered his chair off the stage and went electric, and Elverum followed suit, sliding his acoustic guitar onto his back as if it were a knapsack, and equipping his obsidian Fender Jaguar.
He jerked his hand across the strings and a seismic chord exploded from the amps. The floodlights, trembling with the tripled decibels, cooled from a deep red to spectral blue. A spotlight shot on from below, illuminating Elverum’s face like a ghost. The shadows of the performers rose dozens of feet up the bay columns and onto the balcony, towering over everything and everyone below. Their guitars were silhouetted in colossal relief. Elverum’s eyes were closed, like he was channeling something chthonic. The earlier mournful reverence was usurped by the new dark power, transforming the occasion from funeral to seance. The two men looked up toward the clerestory at their own outsized shadows, or maybe for god.
As Elverum shredded, he turned his back on his congregants, craning toward the altarpiece behind him, an enormous stone reredos of the Last Supper. Blackinton knelt down, and for a moment it seemed as if he might be praying, but then he shook his guitar fiercely in front of the amp for reverb. The pews were vibrating. The ground shook as if the entire church was about to be subsumed by the earth. The hypnotic performance tore a rift in the audience’s perception of time, but it had been minutes, maybe five, maybe twenty, a kind of contained forever, and now everything was neon violet and radioactive green––the palette of supervillains. Elverum slid his hands up and down the frets, angling the guitar toward the crowd as if he were knighting those in the front row, and then back, experimenting with the fuzz and shrieks elicited by the proximity. While the Microphones went on rocking, some audience members leaned back with their eyes closed in private worship; others headbanged.
Half an hour in, Elverum sang about the divine intervention of static interference and Sonic Youth, and suddenly the crowd was teleported back there with him, to 1995,collapsing the barriers between the past, “Even back then the beast of uninvited change insisted itself in,” and now, “and look here,” he said, pointing out and over the crowd, “it still hangs.” There were scattered gasps. People turned, as if they would actually see some vestige of Elverum’s adolescence suspended in the air.
When he picked the Fender back up, he smiled as if he could feel its power coursing through him. “I saw Stereolab in Bellingham and they played one chord for fifteen minutes,” he said, extending the meta, and his face grew very serious; he stroked the steel strings, “I brought back home belief I could create eternity.”
At some point, though the magician’s trick was sleight, he activated a synthesizer. At first a whooshing sound like air leaving a tire, and then other auxiliary percussion. As the formidable Microphones built toward the finale, the lights changed a final time, and now each of them was silhouetted in cobalt, as if ensheathed in a lick of the hottest flame.
“I hope the absurdity that permeates everything joyfully rushes out and floods the room like water from the ceiling, undermining all of our delicate stabilities, admitting that each moment is a new collapsing building,” he sang, and somehow uttering it inside the church seemed impious, or threatening. People glanced up at the ceiling as if something might truly come pouring out and drown them all inside. As if the limestone would crumble inward and turn itself to ruins.
It was almost midnight. “There’s no end,” he concluded. But the audience didn’t move, almost as if they believed him. He raised an eyebrow. He was done. It was over. Not a single person clapped, yet, wondering what would happen, if he would continue––how he might defy expectations. But he just waited, and then moved closer to the microphone, and tapped his forehead against it, as if to say without saying, I meant it. It’s over.
Then, throughout the chamber, the anticipated deluge, though not of water but of applause. One man toward the front shot to his feet, and then dozens more around him, and within seconds all some-seven hundred attendees were standing, cheering, screaming. People were crying and laughing, hugging each other. The Microphones had done it. In their end, they had created eternity.