As a kid, Kyle Morton stumbled upon an apocalyptic vision of mortality. He saw “concentric circles of death,” spiraling in blackness to infinity.
“One was a personal death, like you and your family and the people you know,” he says, the words darting rapidly off his tongue. “And another is that—even if you even live long enough—it’s all temporary. Despite the giant difference of years, it all amounts to basically nothing. As a kid, I couldn’t articulate it as well as I can now, but it used to give me this anxiety. And that’s when I stopped being able to sleep. It felt like, no matter how good things are going, the world is slowly ending.”
Almost all of Morton’s music, created with his 10 bandmates in Typhoon, is an extension of that realization. White Lighter, their latest LP, is built on the urgency of death and the beautifully fleeting nature of life: Morton unspools his tortured poetry over lush blankets of sound—pianos and guitars and multiple drum kits; horns and strings swelling to angelic crescendos.
“Soon enough you will be dancing at my funeral,” Morton quivers at the stirring climax of “Dreams of Cannibalism,” his voice engulfed in brass moans and shouted harmonies. It’s both life-affirming and—as the band’s Facebook bio currently reads—also “death affirming.”
Typhoon has always been a big band. Morton formed the project in Salem, Ore. back in 2005, after graduating high school. He recruited hoards of musician friends from the area, eventually absorbing other local bands, swelling to something resembling a commune. Their majestic stage show—often featuring up to 14 players at a time—turned plenty of heads, and a self-titled debut followed later that year. Typhoon gradually built steam with each subsequent release (especially the stunning 2011 EP, A New Kind of House), but White Lighter is the most fully realized presentation of their grandiose style.
It was recorded on Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, Ore., where Morton and company entrenched themselves in “environmental familiarity.” Morton carved out a makeshift bedroom in a barn, sleeping near his guitar and books—with acres to explore and inspire, it was an ideal setting to write and record such an ambitious album. Morton hates feeling claustrophobic: “That’s why I like traveling, like being on a train,” he says. “It feels like I’m making parallel journeys, both psychologically and physically. Whereas if I stand in one place for too long, you feel mentally stagnant.”
And that setting informed the sprawl of White Lighter, the album which perfectly crystallizes the dark themes in Morton’s life.
“A lot of the record is preoccupied with, ‘How do you save people from the inevitable?’” he says. “And how do you come to grips with it?” It’s a concept album—but not in the traditional prog-rock sense. In its overarching themes and semi-chronological narrative structure, White Lighter is structured like a film script, chronicling Morton’s childhood anxieties, his painful realizations of mortality and his struggle to stay present in a constantly crumbling universe.
One of the album’s major themes is infallibility—of believing in the idea of “gatekeepers,” and then one day realizing there is no gate to keep.
“I aspired to make a lot of parallels to a child and an adult,” Morton says. “As a child, you equate ideas of the universe and infinity with closer ideas like your father. For me, my dad was the man. He was—in a quasi-religious way—the person I looked up to as infallible. He was kind of the gatekeeper to this bigger eternity. I sometimes still get the feeling beyond myself, and the dilemma of, ‘I’m not that by definition. I look up to that by definition. How go I expand? How do I grow beyond my father and become a gatekeeper as well?’ What you learn as you grow older is that the people you thought were gatekeepers aren’t. Everyone’s in a cloud of unknowing.”
It all comes to a head in “Young Fathers,” the album’s third track, in which Morton attempts to trace his own birth and enter his father’s uncertain headspace, his voice layered over soulful Wurlitzer runs and cavernous percussion.
“Now I’m the age when he had me,” Morton says. “That song is like, ‘Oh, shit.’ I think of me having kids, and I’m terrified of it. I know if I had one, I would love it, and I would want to protect it. But I don’t know what I would teach to him or her. I don’t know that I could be the gatekeeper that my dad was for me. We live in an age when there’s not a clear model of what it is to be a good person.”
But the album’s true centerpiece (or “pivot point,” as Morton calls it) is the painfully autobiographical “The Lake,” which speaks directly to the most pivotal moment in Morton’s life: contracting Lyme disease at age 13, after suffering a mysterious bug bite during a 4th of July trip to his uncle’s cabin. Morton survived—after a kidney transplant from his father—but the incident left psychological and physical scars.
“It was a different bug, must have bit my leg,” he sings over acoustic strums, as snares and fuzz-bass explode like sparklers. “But I never saw him.”
“To me, that’s the pivot point of the record,” he says. “There’s a childhood…not exactly innocence, but prior to this acceleration of hyperconsciousness and sickness and questioning health. And ‘The Lake’ is the moment that happens.”
“Something happened at that moment, which was a very before-and-after moment of my life, which is contracting Lyme disease,” he continues. “It happened at such a decisive time—I was 13, so I was just hitting puberty and all that. From what I gather from the stereotypes of puberty, it’s not supposed to fun for anybody. But it actually in a way cloaked the sickness for me and my parents, because we thought I was developing but I was actually dying, effectively. An interesting parallel happened on a cellular level in my body which also happened on a physic level. The Lyme disease [borrelia bacteria] has an auto-immune mimicry function, where it actually disguises itself as your tissue cells. My immune system went for the infection, which disguised itself as me, which effectively wiped out my kidneys. Luckily we caught it just in time—I was not long for the world at that point.
“I don’t mean to wallow in it, but it is interesting because it was coupled with an effect in my mind where I could feel a mental block. My mind became more like a mirror that’s impenetrable rather than something that’s see-through. If you start to feel shame or embarrassment in the things you love you want to protect them, and one of the ways you protect them is you pretend not to love them. Or else those things are so vulnerable if your love is evident. That’s heartbreaking to me to think back when I was a kid. I was so close with my brother and sister. And after I got sick and went to middle school and high school, it was just a mess. My bond with family weakened, and I’ve been trying to recover from that ever since then.”
If White Lighter is carried by a palpable urgency, it’s because Morton lives and writes as if his time is borrowed. Swirling in a dark cloud of depression, he originally envisioned the album as his “swan song.”
“I had this intuition—which ended up being wrong, which I’m thankful for—that my borrowed time was nearing its end,” Morton says. “That I’d kind of done what I ended to do. I’m still here, and I’m very thankful for my friends and family. But the bottom line is that I can’t really go anywhere easily without leaving a big hole in their lives, and I wouldn’t feel good about that.”
But the beauty of Typhoon’s music is that it’s ultimately hopeful. Morton’s apocalyptic musings on death and decay and isolation—they’re vivid, certainly, but they aren’t unique. Morton’s struggles are universal, and there’s a bittersweet beauty in that fact. We’re all dying, but we’re all dying together.
“I always had this conviction that once I write the thing where I did it exactly right, once I get it perfect, I will have totally lived past my usefulness, and I’ll probably just fall down and die,” he says, laughing. “I’m so proud of this work, and it’s by far the best thing I’ve done and we’ve done. But I still can’t help put think the next thing will be better. As long as there’s that care in front of me, we’ll keep making records.”