How Do I Live with the Romance?

Or: “Where We Live, the Generous World Suggests Generous Living”

Like corduroy and over-washed cotton,  The Glow pt. 2‘s  influence over the underground at the turn of our century was inescapable. There are delicate traces of its intricate and unforgiving low fidelity, its distantly intimate songwriting, and perfect rough draft quality woven through the grooves of countless records; every 19 year-old in a Salvation Army sweater picking up an acoustic guitar is inevitably going to re-write “I Felt Your Shape” whether they know it or not.  Put simply: you’ve heard it before even if you’ve never heard it before.

Recorded in Olympia for K Records – the label fidelity abandoned –  The Glow pt. 2  is The Microphones’ most involved, intriguing record. Though the Microphones weren’t really a band. There was one sole band-member, Phil Elverum, and most tunes come across like a nonet on an ancient 40-watt station. Elverum, an auteur, had his run of the Dub Narcotic studio for the better part of a year inviting friends and label-mates to help him. The result is a work so indebted to its own process of creation it is forced to provide its own context. It’s not stunningly original, but every sound is his. It is without a landmark – informed primarily by itself.

There wasn’t a clear trajectory. The record’s successor, Mount Eerie, is a befuddled, if beautiful, mess.  A mix of abrasive white-noise and singularly distinctive song-craft, the album features wonderful, obtuse lines like: “Oh no I am lacking; I want what I see”.  A DVD surfaced – a low-budget tour documentary. Though calling it low-budget implies it had one which I don’t think it did. Neither the tour nor the film.

 

Then somebody turned the P.A. off. The Microphones were silent. Drifting from Olympia back to his native Anacortes, Elverum tripped deep into himself. And then Mount Eerie emerged, from a Northwestern fog and  – in, what was to become, typical recursive fashion – tried to summit itself.

No FlashlightWith his first proper LP under Mount Eerie, Elverum gifted us a different kind of masterpiece. Almost, but not entirely, gone the harsh, over-distorted guitars begin to bend under the nordic weight that will later define many of his albums. The close mic-ing used to create abrasive, naturally fuzzed-out tones seem nowhere to be found. Replaced by sounds almost too natural, the former trademarks only briefly reappear – almost as if to remind you they aren’t there. No Flashlight is an organic record. Unrelenting in its aesthetic, it’s not fair to place it on the hi/lo- fidelity spectrum. It’s deliberately produced and naked.

The sonority of his music was drastically altered. It was as if he was trying to record Being in Time . The tones of this record are hyper-real. Like a painting in which every object is fully in focus – seeing how we could never see. Each instrument on this record appears to have been tracked in a vacuum. It’s attempt for an ontology of his sounds; like he asked himself : What is the sound of a guitar when no one’s hearing it? What is Drum and not a drum? And why can’t I hold them?

As far-flung as these questions seem, they are only variations of what he poses throughout the album. No Flashlight is an intimate album, a dissection of first person experience as much as the deconstruction of his own. It is a phenomenological record; saying: “Alright, darkness… What’s happening to ‘me’? And what is it to happen? And what is me? He attempts to answer those questions with carefully layered melodies and rhythms.

The Microphones, and The Glow Pt 2, were maximalist stereo-teasers.  No Flashlight is a minimalist mid-night hike that can’t help wrapping more sounds around itself. Structures, chords, melodies, lyrics, all of them reappear but they aren’t repetitive. They’re complex and uncomplicated.

Not that many noticed. Sam Ubl in Pitchfork’s August, 2005 review of No Flashlight :

No Flashlight is the most musically undistinguished Elverum-related project to date … The album’s laissez-faire production fails to anchor its quaint, melody-allergic songs. In turn, Elverum’s retiring vocals float to the top, which is a horrible place for them. It’s a textural trainwreck that sabotages the music before one can even focus on lyrics or guitar lines. 

I like what Chris Merwin had to say in his final thoughts from his August, 2005 review for Stylus:

No Flashlight leaves me feeling uncomfortable and a little scared—two emotions that I rarely encounter when listening to music anymore. Which is proof of something. I just can’t quite figure it out yet.

I sympathize with anyone expecting to hear The Glow pt. 3 and finding themselves disappointed. But, some records come to you and you have to come to some records.

No Flashlight, like few other records, builds its own world and invites us to explore it. That the world is Phil Elverum’s and that the exploration is of him is both beside the point, and the entire point.

If you are left with the question “Why subject myself to that”? the answers are on the record: “because the pupil of my eye is hole, there is no inside, and there is no out” and so easily “the generous world suggests generous living”. Giving yourself to this music, to these late-night walk thoughts, is unspeakably rewarding.

Its surreal – walking around everyday being. We’re overstimulated, and not only by our continually amassing technology but, in the most universal sense, by the very functions and processes through which we become stimulated. We assemble data into pictures and thoughts into expressions and then we need to reconcile the two. We’re disconnected, watching existence become degraded. Through-out his career Elverum has posed wonderful inquires and made shivering insights about what all this means. Each track he caught seems like an attempt to answer these questions and support these insights, coated in rich, warm tones.

 

 

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