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 Microphones’ The 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.