by Jasmine Chan
In Mount Eerie’s latest release, Now Only, Phil Elverum chronicles his journey to acceptance of the passing of his wife Geneviève Castrée. A year after the release of A Crow Looked at Me, which was written and produced with a fresh wound, Now Only resounds with its predecessor, however, we see a shift in focus from strict grief and shock to new questions and revelations as he conceptualizes life without her as the present. The ubiquitous use of tragic death and its aftermath as artistic fodder has never touched me quite like Mount Eerie’s recent work. Elverum has abandoned the experimental noise and layers for a simpler musical construction of acoustic guitar and dashes of distorted electrics that serves mostly as a lulling rhythm to a literary quality. It is apparent he does not view his own work as art, but an outlet for documentation and our observation. The stream-of-consciousness style, untouched by metaphor or rhyme, reminds us this is his painful reality he is simply choosing to share. Picking up where A Crow Looked at Me left off, Now Only continues to keep Geneviève breathing through Elverum’s lungs in six lengthy tracks.
The first track, ‘Tintin in Tibet’, opens the album with the lines “I sing to you / I sing to you, Geneviève / I sing to you / You don’t exist,” his voice monotonous yet melodic. Elverum addresses her by name, breaking up the empty “you’s” that saturate his songs about her. This song feels fuller and less like a one-sided conversation, as her physical presence is embodied in his vivid storytelling of fond memories of their time together. He narrates the sweetness of their young love, noting the little things like the image of her peeling an orange and the title of the book he read to her by the water. Here, Elverum sings to Geneviève as the woman he fell in love with that lives in his private memories, rather than the hole she left behind.
‘Distortion,’ the longest track at just under eleven minutes, is essentially an existential rant that covers the past, present, and future beyond himself. The narrative here is complex as he recalls seemingly disconnected events in his life like his grandfather’s funeral, a pregnancy scare after a one-night stand, and watching a documentary about Jack Kerouac on a plane. He ponders his own imminent death and how he will be forgotten like everyone else, but he vows to keep singing to her until his day comes.
The title track shows the greatest departure from A Crow both sonically and in personal progression for Elverum accepting that Geneviève is gone and he must go on with his life. ‘Now Only’ has a surprisingly upbeat chorus with a sing-songy melody: “But people get cancer and die / People get hit by trucks and die / People just living their lives / Get erased for no reason / With the rest of us watching from the side.” He even pokes fun at the commercial success of A Crow and being paid to play “death songs” for young people on drugs at a music festival with Skrillex and Father John Misty. The grief “now only” comes in waves that are starting to dissipate.
For the most part, the brutal honesty in Elverum’s words make the songs about his late wife difficult to listen to because your heart is breaking for his loss, but ‘Earth’ strikes a completely different chord. He recounts seeing “actual chunks” of her bones while playing with their child in the yard and returns to the chair he spread her ashes on in “Seaweed” from A Crow. His matter-of-fact tone is haunting. Personally, I could do without this song, but what does it matter what I think? This is an experience he actually lived through and he wrote this song for himself and Geneviève, not me.
By often referencing his own past work, Now Only feels like an epilogue to A Crow. In ‘Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup,’ Elverum draws parallels between himself and the artist of “Midsummer Eve Bonfire” and “Foxgloves”, as well as the subjects in the pieces. He also compares Geneviève to Astrup, an artist who died young, as he is surrounded by her unfinished and unpublished art in which he feels her presence. In ‘Seaweed,’ he visits the place where they were going to build a new house together to spread her ashes and wonders if there is any significance or if she is present in the field of wild foxgloves, a flower she liked. Now, standing in the same place in ‘Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup,’ he does not wonder anymore.
The album closes with ‘Crow, Pt 2,’ again referencing the album’s predecessor. Part of me wished to hear more bits of the hope in the final track as we did in the first half of the album, although I understand that having good days does not mean the bad days do not linger. This song is the saddest of the album, as Elverum narrates an average morning with his daughter where he sobs over breakfast while listening to her voice on a record. He feels Geneviève in abstract and concrete forms – her empty seat at the table, the wind, the almond-shaped eyes of their offspring.
I will probably never listen to this album again, at least not for a while. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s kind of hard to be in the mood to re-live someone else’s tragedy and I desperately hope nothing happens in the near future that will allow me to relate to A Crow Looked at Me or Now Only. It feels almost intrusive to be consuming this man’s pain with such specific detail as pure entertainment. However, the work of a true artist like Elverum deserves recognition, even if he feels that art has no place in the context of death. Although Now Only inspires hope and acceptance, it’s hard to tell if we will ever hear new music from Mount Eerie that does not echo with Geneviève.