“It is far enough ago that it seems like another person’s music, not mine,” Phil Elverum told the website Manik Music in 2013. He was talking about a reissue of the Microphones’ 2001 album The Glow Pt. 2. “I don’t feel those feelings now, and I wouldn’t write those songs. The world seems different to me now.” If this was true when the interview ran, it would seem to be doubly so in 2021, given all that has transpired since.
Elverum lost his wife Geneviève Castrée in 2016 and continued as a single father to raise their young daughter. He created two albums as Mount Eerie in the aftermath of her death, A Crow Looked At Me in 2017 and Now Only the following year, both masterpieces. The Glow Pt. 2, which came out 20 years ago this Saturday — on September 11, 2001 — is very much a product of youth. It represents the wide-eyed perspective of a creative 22-year-old who is curious and in some ways preternaturally wise but is also finding his way in the world. And given what transpired in the next two decades, it’s easy to believe that Elverum’s older self might barely recognize the guy who made this record.
But I’m not so sure. In the last five years, Elverum has written songs that revisit the era just before and just after he made The Glow Pt. 2, and he’s returned to the period with sensitivity and insight. Because it reflects a worldview so common to its particular time and place — those first years of adulthood, when both the beauty and the terror of the world are so intense both ecstasy and misery are always close at hand, and you want to swallow all of it in one huge gulp — it gains extra resonance when considered from afar.
“It was early 2001, and I was almost 23. I’d finished recording The Glow Pt. 2, and I was either always on tour or setting up a tour, always running, voracious, thirsty,” is how Elverum put it this past year on the album-length song that took up the entirety of Microphones In 2020. “I’d go out to the lake with friends, swim out to the middle and dive as far as I could down to where the water gets cold, with open eyes. We’d go up on the roof at night and actually contemplate the moon. My friends and I trying to blow each other’s minds just lying there gazing, young and ridiculous and we meant it, our eyes watering.” That’s the feeling right there — it’s overwhelming, almost too much.
From one angle, hearing The Glow Pt. 2 from a 20-year remove, when you can’t remember the last time you had your mind blown hanging out on a rooftop, only deepens your connection to the music. It benefits from accreted memory. Collectively, we’re in an age where we want to hide, to shelter so that we feel safe. On the album, Elverum wishes to confront life head-on. He wants the wind to blow — he wants danger, excitement, to be in the thick of it. “I want crazy events to happen to me,” is how he described “I Want Wind To Blow” to The Believer. “I’m tired of gray. Give me black or white.” In a song called “Sycamore” a few years later, Bill Callahan would describe a version of this feeling like this: “And when they bend you in two and say ‘too green for the fire’/ When all you want to do is be a part of the fire/ All you want to do is be the fire part of fire.” The fire part of fire. The glow.
Elverum created the album in the studio. He built the tracks piece-by-piece, assembling the arrangements as he went, layering instruments, and, only toward the end of the process, figuring out a melody and adding his voice. He recorded at Calvin Johnson’s studio Dub Narcotic in Olympia, Wash., where he lived for a while as he got the Microphones off the ground. His 2000 album It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water — built around an 11-minute multi-part centerpiece called “The Glow” — had gotten around, and those who knew the LP recognized that Elverum had tapped into something special. He was missing his hometown of Anacortes and thinking about the mountains and trees and water.
While he had some friends help with a few parts, he played almost all of the instruments himself. The most prominent sounds on the record are acoustic guitar and drums, and The Glow Pt. 2 has a startling dynamic range, moving from barely audible recordings of room tone to noisy blown-out passages filled with crashing percussion. Elverum puts his voice low in the mix, as if he wants you to learn toward him a little, or maybe because he doesn’t mind you reaching for a lyric sheet, since his words work so well on the page.
Many of Elverum’s discoveries in these songs have to do with feeling himself inside of his body. He begins the title track with in-the-red drum bashing, and then the noise cuts out and an organ-like sound fades in and he sings, “I took my shirt off in the yard,” and he remembers when his skin was tanned, seeing it as another would. It’s the most mundane line you can imagine, and then just a few words later he says, “I faced death. I went in with my arms swinging.”
“My Roots Are Strong And Deep” is built around a clanging, unsteady piano. The narrator sees his own limbs reaching out to another, as if they might belong to another person: When the body feels pain, nothing else exists. In “Headless Horseman,” Elverum starts by saying he’d been hit hard and he’s on the ground, but the guitar strumming and his melody bring to mind the homespun prettiness of Lou Barlow’s Sentridoh. Sometimes your body might feel like the entire universe, and other times you feel your size — you’re just a speck, almost nothing. You feel your size. You’re not a planet at all.
I didn’t hear The Glow Pt. 2 for several years after it came out, and when I finally encountered the record it was already steeped in myth. To me, it sounded like a link between Neutral Milk Hotel and Animal Collective — a feral song-cycle that unfolded in a dreamspace. There was something eternal about it, as if, rather than being assembled piece-by-piece in the studio, it had just been found somewhere, like a gnarled piece of driftwood you stumbled upon on a riverbank that somehow tells the story. Between my knowledge of the what the record was about and the sound of the music, I immediately connected the songs to my own life, even when I couldn’t make out what Elverum was singing.
Though they were recorded in the studio, the chime of opening refrain on the opening “I Want Wind To Blow” made me think of a magical sound from my childhood — an acoustic guitar heard in the forest. I remember it from summer camp, when counselors would pass a guitar as we sat by a campfire somewhere. This being the early 1980s, they were playing tunes like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Christian Island (Georgian Bay),” John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” and old folk songs like “The Titanic” and “Michael Row The Boat Ashore.” These were songs to make you think about your place in the cosmos and your inherent smallness that also suggested that there was an enormous world out there that you knew nothing about. And that was thrilling. It was music that was both shared, because we would sing along, and also intensely private, because the emotional force of the music in that setting was so strong I didn’t dare share my feelings with my fellow campers, and I didn’t have the vocabulary for it, anyway.
In terms of form, Elverum’s songs sound nothing like the campfire songs of my childhood, but they are connected to the forest. Up near Anacortes, you can walk on a spongy trail after a good rain and see life and death happening simultaneously everywhere you look. Bright green moss growing on rotting logs, the boney frame of a carcass from an indeterminate mammal being gnawed on by some other animal trying to stay alive. The Glow Pt. 2 is beautiful but with a creepy undertone, depending on where your mind is.
Late in the album, on the astonishing “Samurai Sword,” Elverum describes a man in a tree and a bear on the ground, each wanting to kill the other, as he thrashes on guitar and drums with the intensity of hardcore. “I’m plummeting through the branches toward you now, feeling still,” is how the song ends — we know the moment of truth comes next, but he doesn’t share what happens. The song is about hovering in that precipice, not its resolution.
If you’ve seen the flicker of a fire reflected in a face, you have a sense of what Elverum means by “the glow” — it’s the life force, the throbbing heat that compels us to continue even when we feel like we cannot. Throughout The Glow Pt. 2 it’s not entirely clear if that energy will be sustained. Death seems close. On the closer “My Warm Blood,” Elverum finds himself in the dark during a power outage. “I’m alone except for the insects flying around,” he sings, and then realizes they sense what he had not. “They know my blood is warm still.”
From there, the song unspools and becomes only a tolling bell and the sound of empty space. After a few minutes, somewhere in the distance, we can just barely hear a strummed guitar — it’s the opening refrain of “I Want Wind To Blow.” The album is ending where it started. It suggests that life is cyclical; the things you thought you’ve left behind might still come back to haunt you, but the “you” they haunt is different now, so maybe they’re not so scary. You may have forgotten what the record’s perspective feels like, but it’s still there waiting for you and one way or another it’ll come back around. When you listen to it the next time, you might even be a different person. It’s a flash of time frozen in place that looks new from every angle.