courtesy K Records

Playback: The Glow Pt. 2

I felt some sort of buzzing in my left foot while trying to sleep the other night. It was the sort of thing one could imagine traveling through the springs of their mattress. At first I thought it was my girlfriend’s phone — I conjured up disastrous thoughts of some tragedy or sudden illness in her family, a reason to be calling past 2 a.m. — but when I turned to look I saw it sitting idly on the nightstand, and the buzzing in my foot went on. I moved my right foot over to test that area of the mattress, but I still only felt it in the left one: this weird, artificial vibration. I moved my leg around, cupped my foot in my hand — nothing. It was fully centralized to the left foot. I could feel it nowhere else in my body, so the buzzing had come about from something internal.

Speaking as someone in whom a set of doctors once discovered a rather serious kidney issue just in time and almost completely by chance, I take hints of internal disharmony quite seriously. The fact that our conscience and our physiology both stem from the same place but have almost nothing to do with one another frightens me beyond measure. I tried to rationalize the foot-buzzing to some bodily process, but it didn’t seem to line up with my breathing, and it wasn’t in-tempo with my heartbeat. My mind drifted toward thoughts of nerve issues and brain tumors and imminent death, and eventually I fell asleep. At the time of writing, the buzzing hasn’t returned.

Excuse the fear of my own mortality; I’ve only just turned 21. The greatest motivator to go on lies in the thought that I haven’t really lived my life just yet.

Phil Elverum, indie-famous frontman of The Microphones — and, recently, of Mount Eerie — might look down on me here. (This is the part where the writer attempts to bridge from the anecdotal into the topic at hand, giving the impression that the piece is actually about the music and not the writer themself.) He wasn’t so far from my age when he was writing albums in which he was the central figure, and in which he actually dies and ascends to some other plane wherein he converses with the universe. One imagines that death was all he had on his mind.

Calling him the “frontman” of The Microphones is a little erroneous — Elverum was The Microphones. The final album recorded under the Microphones moniker was “Mount Eerie,” and since then Elverum has performed under the name Mount Eerie — again, essentially a solo project. But whether it’s in the music of The Microphones or Mount Eerie, death floats all around Elverum’s music.

I’m a little late to this one, but The Microphones’s “The Glow Pt. 2” turned 18 last month on Sept. 25. “The Glow Pt. 2” has, over the years, attracted enough of an audience to become indie royalty, coming up in the same conversations as “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and “Merriweather Post Pavilion” with the people you try to avoid — in the online catalog of Elverum’s music label, the record’s description comes with a simple declarative: “It is well known.”

In short, it’s an hour-long, lo-fi, experimental masterpiece. It’s an album that employed certain recording practices in an attempt to actually make the sound a lower quality. It’s an album in which Elverum tracks over the same guitar riff (in which he misses plenty of notes here and there) 10 times, it sounds like, at multiple points in the record. It’s an album in which the vocals often take a backseat to the fuzzy instrumentals, leaving the average listener stranded without knowing the story unless they’re sitting with a lyric sheet in front of them.

The record is like a science fair project stuck together with duct tape and glitter glue, but, still, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and neither would the countless devotees it’s garnered over the years.

Elverum’s singing voice is hilariously untrained; the record often drifts into areas where the listener might wonder if Elverum just didn’t try (there are two tracks simply titled “Instrumental,” and another two instrumental tracks simply titled “(something)”); it goes from soft acoustics to ear-blasting fuzz on the turn of a dime, without warning, twice. It’s an album that doesn’t even attempt to build a bridge to the listener — it is fully and completely a creation of Elverum, and it’s something to which the listener must pull themselves.

But, yes, it’s about death. The presiding fan theory is that the record begins with a character (referred to in the lyrics occasionally as “Phil”) going through a breakup, after which point they travel into the woods before getting mauled by a bear and being left for dead. The final track, “My Warm Blood,” which ends with the sound of a heartbeat, is thought to be the song in which the character bleeds out and dies. (The record’s 2003 follow-up, “Mount Eerie,” begins with the same noises and heartbeat that ends “The Glow Pt. 2,” leading fans to speculate that the two records are connected — the character in “Mount Eerie” slowly realizes they’re dead, a ghost, and eventually crosses over, meeting the universe itself.)

It seems so deceptively simple, but scanning the lyrics really does help the theory hold up. (The bear attack occurs in “Samurai Sword,” the penultimate track, and one of the two fuzz-heavy, ear-blasting tunes on the record.) This album is about dying, no matter how you slice it. In many ways, it’s about wanting to die. Imagining the character bleeding out at the end of “My Warm Blood” is genuinely unnerving for me, and at times I wish I’d never read the fan theories, and that I could just enjoy the music instead. But now the experience is so much fuller — the music and story complement each other so well that it’s nearly impossible to imagine them apart once one has made the connection.

I know I’ve spent very little time discussing the music of the record itself, but it can be quite elusive. The album, like a lot of great albums, is frontloaded, and the first three tracks are the most cohesive ones on the record. Musically, compositionally, things begin to fall apart until right at the end. But that watery middle, in which sounds and song sketches appear and disappear at random, is still strikingly beautiful to the correctly-tuned ear. For your own sake, just call it lo-fi indie folk. That fits most of the time.

But this is a record in which singling out specific songs to discuss can often be a pointless venture, as it is undoubtedly a record that was meant to be listened to as such: a record. Beginning to end, the whole hour. Even if the story theories are wrong, the music is just too connected to imagine it working otherwise. To put this record on shuffle would be to kill it. And there’s enough death in here already.

I won’t say it’s not for the faint of heart, because it’s generally a calm listen. The fuzzier tracks can be jarring at first, but there’s much more abrasive music out there. There is some level of mental fortitude one should have before listening to the record, though. It can be hard listening to a guy wallow and sing about death for an hour, and I know that sounds like such a drag, but believe me when I say it’s so good. Elverum isn’t the first white guy to moan about dying, and he certainly won’t be the last, but something about the way he did it worked. It’s earnest, experimental and not at all full of itself. This record is a genuine creation from the heart — it’s a pleasure to hear. It’s something to maybe even calm you down when your foot is buzzing.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker