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White Noise: The Microphones – The Glow pt 2

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Microphones – The Glow pt 2

I'm finding this a very difficult review to write, pretty much for one sole reason: I really want to give this album 10/10. I regard it as an extraordinary release and it has been one of my personal favourites almost since I first heard it. Now you've probably already looked down and seen that it didn't quite get there, so allow me the space of the review to explain my thoughts on this beautiful and complex album.

Unusually, I'm going to start with the negative and move onto the positive, it just seems a more sensible to go about reviewing this album. So here goes: this is a very dense and difficult listen. Although almost entirely the work of Phil Elverum with conventional instruments, it doesn't help the listener to understand it. The album is a long piece, and each track requires a dedicated listen, preferably through headphones. Vocals are often drowned by rushes of instrumentals, leaving you scouring lyrics sites to find out just what he's saying. The actual composition is frequently jarring even though it is quite simply put together, with a light and airy track such as I Felt Your Size transitioning into the monstrous Samurai Sword without any sort of warning to the listener. Each track will take repeated listens firstly to understand, and then probably even more if you want to like them.

But it's more than worth the effort. On repeated listens almost every track unfurls into a beautiful piece, expertly composed with astonishingly profound and poetic lyrics. Elverum created the entire album on cassettes in the old-fashioned analogue style, which not only makes the effort more laudable but also adds a lovely lo-fi texture to the instrumentals. Elverum's subject is almost invariably the vastness of nature and a ceaseless quest into just how he fits into everything; into the natural world around him, into his own body, and into existence itself. Opener I Want Wind To Blow starts easily, with recognisably folky guitar melodies and light percussion. The deceptively simple lyrics discuss feeling out of touch with the natural world, and without fail Elverum expresses himself beautifully, each word expertly plucked and sung with a true weight of meaning. His voice may sound like an all-American drawl but the vocal melodies are brilliantly implemented throughout not just this track but the entire album. The sweet song ends with a long and lushly orchestrated instrumental that suddenly begins to crash all around with booming percussion as it leads into title track and album highlight The Glow Pt. 2. His vocals take on a desolate longing, this song is just about living, and what that really means. He sings over organs, drums and guitars timed exquisitely to emphasise the complex questions and ideas that his poetic lyrics raise. When he sings “my blood flows harshly”, the word 'blood' is stretched to almost 10 seconds in length, and though it may seem weird, this is a man grappling with his own existence, confounded by the physicality of his own body, asking just why it is that he is alive. The elongation is not just acceptable, it is demanded by the weight of these concepts. This track ebbs into third cut (and another stunner) The Moon, where after a short instrumental a rushing percussion all but drowns out every single line he sings. But go and look up these lyrics, because they are simple and exquisite- Elverum here tells a story about returning to a place he used to visit with a lover.

It's very hard to explain just what makes each of these tracks so special, and I could happily go on describing each of these twenty songs in even more detail than I have for the three above. The music could be said to be difficult but it is more a case of the instrumentation being uncompromisingly focussed on the subject of the songs themselves, not pandering to a poppy aesthetic. But once you get to the bottom of these tracks, they could even be described as catchy, thickly-veiled pop songs. There are two tracks titled Instrumental and both are stunning, particularly the gorgeous piano on the first one. Headless Horseman, My Roots Are Strong And Deep, You'll Be In The Air and I Felt Your Size are easier listens, and all use a simple metaphor to discuss sophisticated issues of life and love. Other tracks such as The Mansion, The Gleam pt. 2 and Samurai Sword are less inviting, but each track has so much to explore. His lyrics chart the totality of life across the beautiful soundscapes which perfectly express the gorgeous, cruel and exacting natural world that Elverum finds himself in the middle of.

I believe that every single track on this album is worth a dedicated listen, and each is extremely rewarding in its unpacking. However I know that some may find it a difficult and unapproachable listen, and more to the point a lot of people don't want listening to music to be an effort. That's completely fair enough, but this album rewards devoted listeners with more beauty and meaning than almost any other I've come across. So give it a listen, and if it happens to pique your interest then I can assure you that you are on to an album of boundless beauty and quality.


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