UT CONNEWITZ PHOTO CREW/CC BY-ND 2.0
For his Mount Eerie project, artist Phil Elverum works with a variety of guest musicians.
Dying is a bit like going to the dentist: You don’t particularly want to do it, and you spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about it. Ultimately though, you go — everyone does. As much as you floss and brush in hopes of delaying the appointment a bit longer, one day you’ll find yourself stuck reclining in a green vinyl chair.
When I was little, my mom used to take my brother and me to the dentist together. This presented a dilemma. There were two of us, but only one man with pointy medieval torture tools. Inevitably, one of us would be left to sit in the appropriately dour waiting room, with its plastic plants and watercolors of horses.
I would sit and wait with competing senses of fear and urgency. I wanted to run away, to go home and put it off for another week. At the same time, there was a sense of desperation to just get it over with. Sitting in the waiting room, you were alone, and in that loneliness you only wanted to change your immediate state, unable to determine which option was better or worse.
This feeling, albeit in a less tooth-related way, is essentially the dilemma that musician Phil Elverum has faced for the last two years. In 2016, Elverum’s wife, cartoonist and musician Geneviève Castrée, died of pancreatic cancer. Since then, Elverum has been grieving in a rather unique way, translating his search for solace and stability into music.
On March 16, Elverum, working under the name of his project, Mount Eerie, released Now Only, an LP borne out of his ongoing processes of mourning and beginning again once the life of the one you love has ended.
Now Only is a follow up to 2017’s A Crow Looked at Me, the first Mount Eerie release following Castrée’s death.
That album was widely acclaimed by critics for its heart-wrenching beauty and emotional vulnerability. It would be unfair to say A Crow Looked at Me was a great, pleasant album to listen to, since the subject matter is so tragic and thoroughly painful, but it was one of the most remarkable pieces of art released that year.
Now Only runs in a similar vein, but time has altered the way that Elverum talks about his loss. While still clearly grieving, Elverum’s lyrics are illustrative of how he has begun to cope, how tragedy has affected his work as a musician and how he finds levity in his ongoing — although hopefully subsiding — suffering.
At only six songs, the album compresses its emotional density down to a near dangerous size. Elverum doesn’t bother with much metaphor or allusion: The opening lines of the first song are, “I sing to you/I sing to you, Geneviève/I sing to you/You don’t exist/I sing to you though.” Lyrics like these, delivered in Elverum’s half-sung, half-spoken and often wavering voice, are simple yet incredibly poignant.
You could go through this album and find a hundred examples of lines like the ones printed above, each more gut-wrenching than the last, but they are not the only side of this album. Elverum also shares anecdotes, about Castrée, his young daughter, his past experiences with death and, maybe most interestingly, how the openness of A Crow Looked at Me has impacted his career.
On the album’s third, titular track, Elverum sings about being invited to a music festival in Arizona, “to play death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs.” This is a striking lyric, delving into the complex relationship between art, artist and audience. How are we supposed to receive music that’s so devastatingly personal?
That line also seems to indicate that Elverum has changed since his last release. At certain points Now Only does feel a little warmer than A Crow Looked at Me. There are more happy stories and fond memories, as well as a macabre humor in the absurdity of playing songs about personal tragedy to a glorified party.
This was a difficult review to write, since listening to this album more than a few times would have been rough. Much like its predecessor, Now Only is as beautiful as it is emotionally taxing. It’s another amazing work from Mount Eerie, but a work produced by someone who is clearly suffering. As Elverum himself discusses, the emotional intensity of the music and its very clear impact on the artist can leave you feeling a little voyeuristic.
Listening to Now Only feels a bit like watching a funeral from the other side of the cemetery fence; you can understand the emotions and empathize with the people you see, but it also seems wrong.
Consequently, I could never really honestly write that I enjoyed this album. It’s beautiful to be sure, and Elverum’s songwriting is as tremendous as it has been in the past, but I didn’t get any pleasure from it.
But that’s fine, because Now Only isn’t supposed to be a fun listen. It’s difficult and jarring but valuable in both its artistry and in its importance to the artist himself.