"The sound of cars, the smell of bars, the awful feeling of electric heat," Phil Elvrum sings quietly over acoustic guitar during the first track of The Microphones' newest album, The Glow, pt. 2. He goes from describing sensations to telling his feelings, fears and observations in a tone that seems like he's not speaking but thinking to himself. For much of the album he has this tone. "I took my shirt off in the yard, no one saw that the skin on my shoulders was golden," he sings on the title track. "I cannot get through September without a battle," he declares later in the same song. Elvrum's soliloquies at times express the inner anxieties of a tormented soul, though in an everyday enough way to seem familiar. "I Am Bored", one song title bluntly states. Yet as soon as it seems like The Microphones' songs are akin to journal entries in spirit, he'll throw you a musical curveball, as with "Headless Horseman", which in feeling seems like another personal confession, and is . . . except that this time it's about an encounter with the headless horseman, throwing into question any sense of real-life documentary that the album had.
That act of disrupting, of throwing off expectations, is key to the Microphones’ music. It’s even more central to the songs’ musical constructions than to their lyrical content. The first two songs form a perfect example. There’s elements of surprise within each song and, even more dramatically, in the transition between the two. The album opener, “I Want Wind to Blow”, begins with acoustic guitar and Elvrum’s inward-turned vocals; as the song proceeds and instruments come in here and there, the music gains of subtle sort of lushness, a quality which persists through much of the album even when there’s less than a handful of instruments on the track, it feels elaborately designed. As the song ends, it gives way to the title track, which opens with extreme, “out” rock, with all musicians playing with metallic abandon. Then that song transforms too, moving into acoustic guitar and vocals again, and then more into a foreboding mix of electric guitars and background piano. The entire album is like this: pretty guitar instrumentals lead into bizarre, fuzzy pop/rock, and so on. Lengthy periods of silence penetrate the album, in a case or two interrupting a song for minutes. Two tracks that together are aptly called “(something)” offer quiet but truly strange instrumental music, while a song called “I Felt My Size” takes a break from pretty balladry to drive through some sort of unearthly bar, with warped piano playing before a cloud of noise.
The Microphones’ approach to music is free and idiosyncratic. They seem constrained by few boundaries, a fact that allows them to travel through various unique musical lands. In a way this is difficult music, though perhaps complicated is a more appropriate word than difficult, because the latter suggests that listening to it is a chore. There’s nothing painful about The Glow, pt. 2, but there is definitely something mysterious about it. The glow of the title might refer to what goes on inside a person’s soul, or maybe it’s just sunlight, but it could also be the unique spell that the Microphones cast, the magic light that emanates from their music.
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