The Microphones - The Glow Pt. 2

Welcome to Backtrack, Sam Hockley-Smith’s new Stereogum column dedicated to a remembrance of great things past, of important records situated in the middle ground between Legendary Reissue Status and yesterday’s news. Backtrack will unfold as a crate-digger’s journey [or: in relation to itself], drawing connections to previous stops, celebrating artists’ seminal platters. It’s borne out of love for the unrivaled power of the album format, and what happens when we think about great ones. First up: The Microphones’ new millennial classic The Glow Pt. 2.

It’s hard to explain exactly what happens in the Pacific Northwest. A couple months a year, it’s beautiful. The sun’s out. Everyone is smiling. People all over Washington State are suddenly really into kayaking. Then it gets cold and dark and rainy, and cities filled with millions, towns with thousands, start to feel like drizzly wastelands devoid of people. You wander, half-dazed toward a sort of hibernation. It’s mostly easy to submit to the cold, which seeps directly into your bones, but there are times when your entire mind and body is fighting for some kind of unachievable change. And it’s during those times that The MicrophonesThe Glow Pt. 2 becomes important.

Phil Elverum, the man behind the project, now goes by Mount Eerie, but prior to that, as The Microphones he developed a sound that walked the line between wide-eyed and wise. He constructed songs as ramshackle collage fragments, building tracks from muffled vocals, dense rumbles of guitar and an obsession with nature that acts as a barometer for his place in the world. In Elverum’s songs, he’s the sum total of his surroundings. His music, even when collaborators pop in, is deeply solitary, but it never comes off as lonely. It’s more like he’s a piece of nature — small but powerful; only as consequential as he allows himself to be.

The Glow Pt. 2 came out on K Records, an Olympia, Washington based label, in 2001. Elverum took a sound developed by label founder Calvin Johnson with his group Beat Happening — a sort of innocent, naive approach to life as shorthand for an endless, unachievable quest for simple living—and pushed it further away from sunny optimism, into a much darker, more intense world. It was an idea that Elverum flirted with on earlier records, most notably 2000′s It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water and stretched it out across an album packed with steel drums and cavernous organs. At its hugest, it sounded like tectonic plates shifting.

The title track features the lyrics: “I could not get through September without a battle/ I faced death, I went in with my arms swinging/ but I heard my own breath and had to face that I’m still living/ I’m still flesh, I hold on to awful feelings/ I’m not dead, there’s no end, my face is red” before Elverum’s voice shoots for the mountaintops and doesn’t quite get there: “My blood flows harshly…” is stretched out endlessly, with Elverum’s voice cracking and thinning under the strain of itself.

In recent years, Elverum’s made very public his love of Norwegian black metal. He’s incorporated it into his sound, softening its edges and pushing it into his own. Placing his work in that timeline makes a lot of sense, but I think The Glow Pt. 2 is actually a Northwest shoegaze album. Elverum plays with texture similarly to Kevin Shields’s work with My Bloody Valentine. Both artists use volume as a way of conveying emotion. Elverum’s “The Moon” doesn’t reach any of the cracked heights of My Bloody Valentine’s “Come In Alone,” but it does build out loneliness from a mess of horns and warm bass, and even at its quietest, “Samurai Sword” sounds blown out, cymbals crashing against frantic guitar that’s pushed way too far into the red.

The album was a critical success, but its bond with listeners, as individuals, surpasses that. Everyone who loves it has their own Glow Pt. 2 story, and usually it involves finding moments of illumination or comfort in its crevices. Four years after the album’s release, I was living in Olympia, attending The Evergreen State College. My dorm room was tiny and too hot. Just a heater, a twin bed and a desk, with one narrow window looking out at a copse of damp trees and a slick patch of grass. I was deeply unhappy with where I was, but refused to do anything about it for months. Just about every night, a woman would come out from the room below and argue with her girlfriend over the phone. It mostly ended in crying, and as far as I can remember, was never happy. I had no idea what was going on, I could only hear half the conversation, but it seemed pretty serious. I’d lay in bed trying to sleep, but got fed up pretty quickly. I was surrounded by towering fir trees, sweating and listening to a protracted breakup for much of the winter.

Every night, this woman would cry. Some part of me wanted to comfort her, but that seemed intrusive. I was young. What wisdom did I have? What wisdom do I have now? What could I possibly say? Selfishly, I’d put on music to drown it out, and every time, it was The Glow Pt. 2. It didn’t make me feel better about the shitty winter, or the crying woman, or my college malaise or post adolescent loneliness, but it did help me make peace with all of it.

Comments (22)
  1. Small correction: It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water was released in September of 2000. The Glow, pt. 2 was released in 2001.

  2. Stereogum: We Got a Column for Everything.

    The site could probably use a redesign soon to organize all of these new features sprouting up on a daily basis in a way where they don’t get lost amongst themselves, or possibly a table of contents. There’s an online magazine on here somewhere — Your design team just needs to piece it together.

  3. I love columns. This one really looks good. To me, Elverum’s music really taps that connection to the natural world that is so strong here in the northwest. It just feels like a rainy afternoon in the trees.

    • I think it’s the same with where I’m from in the highlands of Scotland; where nature is just so inescapably huge that it’s impossible not to simply feel like a tiny part of it, and this album captures that feeling brilliantly.

    • This is one of my favorite albums, and I appreciate it both on its own terms and as the album that introduced me to Elverum’s idiosyncratic world of sounds and words mostly about trees, man. I often think about The Microphones and Mount Eerie as projects that sound completely insufferable on paper, but that totally work for me nonetheless. I agree part of this has to do with living the in the northwest, which was my home for the first few years of getting to know this music. Ever since I’ve been uprooted to the east coast, however, I listen to more of Elverum’s stuff than just about anything else; it sounds like home in the best way possible.

  4. This is a great idea for a new regular column, a great record to write about first, and a well-written piece. Hooray!

    I think those last two paragraphs describe the environment in which this album is meant to be heard.

  5. Finally, a feature that focuses on pointless editorializing and personal reflection.

    • Oh if only everyone could be as pointlessly ironic as you! Here’s a cool and ironic idea, if you aren’t into it, stop reading.

  6. Glad this column started off with what might be my favorite album ever. Also, it’s probably worth noting that Phil is reissuing all of the Microphones stuff on vinyl this year. Glow Pt. 2 reissue is out in July.

  7. Stereogum articles of all sorts (featured stories, columns, etc.) now seem to be written as personal autobiographies of the writers, with few musical details thrown in. Don’t the editors get tired of reading what amount to diary entries disguised as music writing/criticism?

  8. Love this album, but was hoping to see the article a bit more fleshed out. I agree that I would have like to of seen more attention spent on the musicianship, production, where the album stood alongside its contemporaries, etc.

  9. Well I liked the column. Got me listening to this album again for the first time in what feels like years.
    Too many Negative Nancys around here these days.

  10. I have a vivid memory of listening to this record on headphones while cruising around the city on my bicycle in the middle of a sweltering August night before breaking into the town pool to do some night swimming. And then I went to a house party that Phil Elvrum was playing in a nearby city, and he led us on a walk to a park, where he climbed a tree and sang to the dozen or so of us from a tree limb. The Microphones (and this record in particular) mean a great deal to me.

  11. I was music director of my campus radio station when this album dropped. With all the weirdness and uncertainty of a fucked-up, morally ambiguous, ever-changing post-11 September 2001 world, this album with its quirky serenity brought me peace and comfort, and I’ve always turned to it for that over the years.

  12. This album is amazing. I was 19 when it came out, and it blew me away. It still blows me away. I want wind to blow.

  13. I think all of the Microphones stuff is excellent and I still listen to all those albums, but this is the one I like the most. I was pretty disappointed when Phil Elvrum showed up in Austin and played a set consisting mostly of one-minute songs about random things in the room because a small percentage of people dared to talk to one another in a venue that was unquestionably a punk rock club/bar. He basically stole from his fans and remained totally unapologetic about it after the fact.

    • I suppose he can be a bit all over the place live at times. A few months ago, he played two amazing shows in Austin though. The first night was performing material from Clear Moon & Ocean Roar with a full band and it sounded amazing. The second night was in a basement-type venue where he basically took anyone’s requests and played a bunch of classic Microphones songs. He even played my request for Solar System and I got to talk to him for quite a bit afterwards. I thought he was a really cool guy myself.

      • Well, it’s been about a decade since The Incident; I guess I can give him another chance live again. With my luck, he will play an entire set of Microphones songs…on a kazoo.

  14. No way, the Glow Pt. 2 also was (is) the soundtrack to my college malaise and post-adolescent loneliness! It sure did get better, didn’t it? (…..didn’t it?)

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