Home Music Holy Hell Holy Hell! The Glow Pt. 2 Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Glow Pt. 2 Turns 20

The thunderclouds broke up.” So goes the first line of the Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2, and it’s a bit of a bummer to realize that this album of fierce, volcanic power is at least in part about Phil Elverum’s breakup with his girlfriend Khaela Maricich, with whom he was in a band called—the Thunderclouds. His desire to wallow in self-pity is represented by a desire to expose himself to the elements on the kind of punishing spiritual quest this album’s great length suggests. “I want wind to blow.” “I want to be cold.” “I want to bury myself in snow.” When I expressed my consternation that an album which resonated deeply with me for its animist mysteries and profound sense of awe was actually code for girl problems, a friend interjected that it can be about his breakup and the universe at the same time. It’s sort of like the Christian doctrine of hypostatic union, which teaches that Jesus Christ can be both fully God and fully human. This was helpful. Yet I find today that The Glow Pt. 2 is tremendously overwrought and immature when taken as a metaphor, and it resonates most strongly when interpreted at face value as an album about human smallness in the face of the crushing vastness and impassiveness of nature.

Elverum comes from Anacortes, a town off the coast of Washington State that isn’t the windswept hamlet you might expect after hearing this man’s music and then reading that he lives on an island, but is still a great place for a child with an active imagination to stare out the window and dream of adventure. As a teen he got a job at the Business, a local record shop owned by Beat Happening’s Bret Lunsford, and set up a small studio in the back to tinker after hours. By the time Elverum entered Dub Narcotic Studios on his 21st birthday to record The Glow, Pt. 2, he clearly knew the ins and outs of the studio well enough to make an album that rivals any Joe Meek and Lee “Scratch” Perry production in its use of effects and jury-rigged trickery. Incredible blasts of distortion. Stereo-panned guitars that sound like waves of water lapping against the sides of the listener’s head. And a sound so evocative it’s taken on the same cult following as the Panasonic hum on the Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas, leading Elverum to release a limited-edition tape only of that sound: a “foghorn” in the form of a single bass note.

It doesn’t sound much like a foghorn, but like the foghorns Elverum no doubt heard throughout his childhood, it sounds deafeningly loud but impossibly distant. It never gets closer or further away. It just circles around us, as if we’re lost. I believe it represents—well, God is just one word for it. It’s that feeling you get when you stare out to sea and sense something staring back at you. Throughout human history, we’ve had the hunch that there has to be something on the other side of perception: a deity, or the answer to everything, or some kind of singularity that will render deities and answers irrelevant. Elverum has many names for it. Sometimes it’s the Glow, sometimes it’s the Gleam. It’s the second lake, which still has never been seen, on his haunting Mount Eerie track “2 Lakes.” And it’s the green glow on the cover of 2005’s No Flashlight, shining just beyond the trees. The Elverum discography dances around this uncertainty, and though The Glow Pt. 2 scans as a post-SMiLE studio prayer at first, there’s nothing “psychedelic” about it. Psychedelia is based on a druggy parody of metaphysical knowledge. Elverum doesn’t even pretend to have the answers.

The Glow Pt. 2 deepens almost immediately. Listen for the first minute or so, and you might not think of it as that much different than any other amateurish indie project, even despite an incredible sound that’s like a rope being repeatedly pulled and snapped. Our foothold slips quickly: Elverum sings the first note of the title “I Want Wind To Blow,” and the word just hangs there as he finishes his sentence in the lower harmonies. The revelation of two, three, four Elverums is disorienting, and it expands the scope of the album from the personal to the cosmic. When the original riff disappears and is replaced by a ten-note rhythm that presses anxiously onward as if afraid for its life, we’re in the woods. And then there’s the ending, which I’m not going to describe, and which at this point I’m going to recommend you check out for yourself. Listen on headphones, either in nature or while alone in the dark. This is not an album for putting on at work or on the bus.

A little more than a quarter of the 20-track album’s runtime is taken up by its first three tracks. First “I Want Wind to Blow.” Then the title track, with that incredible held note in which his own voice seems to flay itself bare and turn inside-out, and a wash of harmonium that introduces that instrument’s significance in the Elverum catalog as a device for opening up black holes. And “The Moon,” which curiously borrows a horn part from “Holland, 1945” on Neutral Milk Hotel’s similarly ramshackle odyssey, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. A sly reference? I don’t think so. I think that, in his unsentimental evocation of nature’s ruggedness, Elverum understands that mountains and moraines and even planets come together through the gradual accumulation of matter on a massive scale. Just as space dust from the dawn of time can eventually find its way into the body of a living thing, so can a bit of a Neutral Milk Hotel song suddenly find itself part of a Microphones song. Elverum’s songs are like lean-tos built out of whatever he finds lying around, and this allows him to get away with indulgences that would make most artists look ridiculous—the pencil sharpener on the Microphones’ final album Mount Eerie, the Auto-Tune on Clear Moon.

The first side of The Glow Pt. 2 is clearly an odyssey, and it’s where the album’s most striking images lie. “Headless Horseman,” in particular, is almost all striking images. No one is ever prepared for the line that comes after “I wandered aimlessly around,” and I won’t spoil it. And though “I went back to get my stuff” is a scene from a hundred thousand breakup songs, the next line, “it was tangled up and tough,” suggests overgrowth, that no one has visited or laid a finger on his stuff in many a moon. It’s one of the few moments where the breakup-album conceit and the pagan-mythology conceit come together in a meaningful way. But the album’s most cryptic images linger just as long in the mind. A “Mansion” with no ceiling and no door is such a creepy thing to think about it renders metaphor redundant. Meanwhile, the interludes (labeled “Something,” as always on Elverum albums) are better-designed than most bands’ best songs. Listen to the sadness and mystery conveyed just in a snatch of guitar on the first “Something,” then the mounting terror of the second, which loops all manner of metallic clanging and adds a horrific porcine screech.

The second half of the album, meanwhile, feels like smoldering pieces left over after the explosion of the first. This is where the album’s harshest and most inhospitable compositions—the shrieking steel drums of “The Gleam,” the sawing tension of “Map,” the jagged distortion of “Samurai Sword”—coexist with the album’s purest pop songs: “I Felt Your Shape,” “You’ll Be in The Air.” It’s a little frustrating to be sucked so deeply into the album’s first half only to be spat out into these uncertain doldrums. But nothing really ends in the endless series of part-twos and addendums and hyperlinks that make up the Elverum discography. For The Glow Pt. 2 to end the way in the way of a great rock epic, rather than with the quietness of “My Warm Blood” and the sad song of the foghorn, would suggest a self-containment this record doesn’t possess. The story of The Glow Pt. 2 resumes, by the way, on the Mount Eerie album Singers: “I succeeded in burying myself in snow.

In 2016, the Microphones-Mount Eerie mythology came to a screeching halt when Phil Elverum’s wife Geneviève succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. Elverum’s subsequent albums, including a belated return to the Microphones name last year, deal not only with Geneviève’s death but with his own treatment of death and “conceptual emptiness” in his art. It’s clear that much of his past work now gives him hives to listen to and that he finds the more literal and autobiographical music he makes now to be a more mature form of expression than worldbuilding. The 2018 song “Distortion” in particular aims to torpedo any perception of Elverum as some kind of psychedelic hermit in communion with the universe, portraying the 23-year-old that made The Glow, Pt. 2 as a callow, immature kid obsessed with sex and bloated by his own ego. It’s not hard to hear that kid on The Glow, Pt. 2 if you listen to it one way. But you can hear the hermit, too. Hypostatic union.

  • Criminally Overrated: The Invisible Man

    By generating no real suspense about what’s happening or how it’ll play out, The Invisible…
  • Loscil: Clara

    The fullest and most luxurious immersion into the Loscil sound. …
  • Olivia Rodrigo: Sour

    Sordid tabloid details are less important than the sadistic, wicked, resolutely teenage wa…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Criminally Overrated: The Invisible Man

By generating no real suspense about what’s happening or how it’ll play out, The Invisible…