Music paints pictures.
The Microphones' The Glow, Pt. 2 paints in watercolor. Broad strokes, every other devoid of pigment—just water. The paper warps and bloats, and colors run together... but you can still make out enough detail to tell.....
Greenland... ice and fire, volcanos and glaciers, steam and smoke... or the primeval forging of Washington's Olympic and Cascade range ranges. The fires cool, the glaciers recede, and Phil Elvrum comes into being in the small town of Anacortes, Washington, on the shore of Puget Sound.
"Everything Phil Elvrum creates just...radiates humanity." ...I didn't say that, and haven't even heard anything else he has created, but I know that, for this album at least, it's very true. Phil Elvrum is the heart and soul of the Microphones, and he has crafted a lo-fidelity masterpiece in 2001's The Glow, Pt. 2.
Instruments used in The Glow, Pt. 2 range from saxophones to an organ to steel drums, but Pacific Northwest indie acoustic guitar is the main focus of most songs. Folky strumming and beautifully drunken rhytmic pizzicato combine behind Elvrum's delicate vocals, which rarely raise above the range of a quiet lullaby, even when the music enters the realm of white noise rock freakout. Fuzz is a main ingredient—colors running together and paper warping—as Elvrum exercizes his lo-fi mastery. Cymbals and percussion often sound more like a shimmering heat wave... but paradoxically, give a sense of crystal clearness, like snowfall in the Sahara.
Elvrum's lyrics often explore emotion and relationships using natural metaphor. Flesh, blood, fire, smoke, ice, snow, wind, rain, the sky, sun, moon, dawn and nightfall, warmth and cold. His singing is naturalistic, not always following the rhythm or melody of the song, but always seeming to fit right into the scheme of things.
I just noticed: when you scroll on a laptop screen, the LCD fades relatively slowly: letters and words merge together as one pixel's color changes to admit another. This is possibly another similie that could be used to describe this album. And when you stop scrolling, it all makes crystal clear sense,
Track Descriptions and Interpretation
The Glow, Pt. 2 opens with "I Want Wind to Blow My Clothes Off Me"—the sound of a guitar rhythmically strummed: "The thunderclouds broke up / and the rain dried up / the lightning let up / the clacking shutters just shut up / there's no black or white / no change in the light / no night, no golden sun..." spoke-sung over the lonely guitar. Eventually the song morphs into a driving, forward-leaning piece, accelerated by thumping bass drum and hypnotic guitar picking. Fully fuzzed-out cymbals pick the action up even more, but it's a shock...
... and one of the album's best moments, as the song "The Glow, Pt. 2" kicks in. Hairy guitars lunge out and then fade into another delicate poem backed by more rythmic guitar and piano. "I cannot get through September without a battle / I face death, I went in with my arms swinging..." ...now transcendant organ music and the loudest vocals on the album (just passionate, not angry).
These two songs set the tone for the album, covering ground from spoken lyrics to angry fuzzout. Time for some interpretation: loosely, The Glow, Pt. 2 is the story of a relationship's ups and downs, translated into dense metaphor often depicting naturalistic imagery. "I Want Wind to Blow" is the anticipation of relationship, a longing for something to happen, for the wind to bring change. The blast that begins "The Glow, Pt. 2" is simultaneously that "something" happening and a jump forward in time to a low point in the ensuing relationship—the "battle."
"The Moon" begins with sublimely crisp guitar, pulling the listener back to the wonderful beginning: "we discovered that our skin is soft," the first wonders of love.
"I got hit hard I'm on the ground / and if you swing again I'll duck / I wish you the best of luck / You deserve yourself / and I'll return from my trip to hell / a headless horseman. / O, what a loss / I went back to get my stuff / it was tangled up and tossed / I stood there and stared you down / and I walked aimlessly around..." The song "Headless Horseman" seems to depict the aftermath of a breakup, the repeated lines "O, what a loss" and "I miss my closest friend ... it's a precious thing we lost" depict the sorrow of love lost.
"My Roots Are Strong and Deep" is a song of simultaneous declaration of strength and submission, perhaps an exploration of the interplays of power within a relationship.
An instrumental interlude precedes "The Mansion," a melancholy yet beautiful song that is possibly a depiction of the feeling of "lostness" and uncertainty that follows a breakup or loss, suggesting labyrinthine expanses and dazzling the listner as music flows from the left to the right ear. Listen to The Glow, Pt. 2 on headphones as often as you can. There is no substitute.
Two instrumental tracks entitled "(something)" follow, exploring sometimes menacing soundscapes and reinforcing the feeling of uncertainty that "The Mansion" expressed. The hymn-like promise of "I'll Not Contain You" reminds me of an idea expressed by existentialist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre: that all love relationships are essentially power relationships, with each person simultaneously wanting to "own" the other and hating themself for feeling this way about someone they are supposed to love.
Pulsing, quiet menace exudes from "The Gleam, Pt. 2." Silence sets in until "Map" rattles suddenly into your headphones, a mournful boy/girl duo sings, "O, the sound / O, the spark / ...the swelling dark... / O, the lack / O, my bending back..." suggesting that the relationship we are following has lost its direction—its map.
"You'll Be in the Air" literally depicts a airplane ride, but the singer is left behind: "and can you tell that I'm down here?" Isolation and anticipation seem to be the theme, but the return will be a happy one, this time.
The thrashy white noise of "I Want to Be Cold" almost drowns out Elvrum's still quiet vocals, and its lyrics seem to depict perverse enjoyment of ones own pain and self-pity. "You tore a hole so deep my leak poured out torrentially / but now I'm bored." "I Am Bored" perhaps tells of the end of mourning, with "I Want to Be Cold's" self-pity replaced by a wish for things to return to as they were during the previous relationship.
"I Felt My Size" might depict a rebirth, realization that one has a place within the world of humanity, that one needs company to truly be human. "I'm not a planet at all," sings Elvrum. Another beautiful instrumental precedes "I Felt Your Shape," an upbeat, folky love song that warns against holding too tight and does absolutely nothing to prepare you for the most dangerous song on the album, "Samurai Sword." Telling the tale of stalking and battling a deadly polar bear, the outright rawk of "Samurai Sword" is belied by the album's quietest vocals, nearly impossible to hear, in fact whispered in places. A cathartic expression of the battle between the sexes, perhaps? The final song, "My Warm Blood" is very much an ending, "O, I'm alone / except for the sound / of insects flying"—even a surrendur. Alone, but still alive: "My red blood is warm still," are Elvrum's last words. He will live to fight and love another day. Long minutes of near silence punctuated by heartbeats and soft noise lull you into sleep.
A joyfully experimental tracklisting:
N THE MOON
12.GLOW ISLAND W * E
\ ###### #######o## \
\ ffff o |
S 1. \ ff5.f oo / D
U / fff o / A 11.
N &--> >----_ ffffff o / W
S \ -------oo \ N
E 13. | __ oo /
T / / \ o / ?8.?9. 6.17.
2. \_ / \_oo__/
KEY: 4. HELL 15.
# - ice
/v\ - volcano 16. LOVE 18.
C - civilization
f - forestry
o - mountain range ...sleep 20.
& - annotation
A less ambitious, less confusing, and more useful tracklist:
- I Want Wind to Blow - 5:34
- The Glow, Pt. 2 - 5:00
- The Moon - 5:19
- Headless Horseman - 3:12
- My Roots Are Strong and Deep - 1:55
- Instrumental - 1:40
- The Mansion - 3:36
- (something) - 1:48
- (something) - 2:55
- I'll Not Contain You - 2:52
- The Gleam, Pt. 2 - 2:00
- Map - 5:00
- You'll Be in the Air - 2:43
- I Want to Be Cold - 1:43
- I Am Bored - 1:38
- I Felt My Size - 2:21
- Instrumental - 1:58
- I Felt Your Shape - 1:57
- Samurai Sword - 4:09
- My Warm Blood - 9:27
Total time: 66:12
One always risks carrying interpretation too far... so just buy and listen to this album, please. Modern music doesn't get much better than this.