Around this time last year, Phil Elverum released his ninth album under the name Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me. The record documents in vivid detail the death of Elverum’s wife, Geniviéve, in 2016. Death isn’t exactly an uncommon theme within music, especially recently; from David Bowie’s Blackstar to Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, death has been a source of inspiration throughout both popular and indie music for as long as music has existed. It’s a subject that has been pondered and exploited time and time again, and despite how grim the music gets, most records dealing with death are still, at their very core, attempting to create art. Throughout each song on A Crow Looked at Me, one core message is reaffirmed: there’s nothing artful to be made of this experience. What listeners get from this record, if not art, is a disturbingly intimate view into the mind of a man who has seemingly already been pondering mortality throughout much of his life, and has to discover firsthand the difference between his artistic ruminations on death and “real death” itself.
I’ve considered myself a fan of Phil’s work for several years now. In fact, I often cite The Glow Pt 2 (released in 2001 under his now-defunct project The Microphones) as my favorite album of all time. Still, even I admittedly avoided A Crow Looked at Me for weeks after its release. After listening to it for the first time, my day was predictably ruined. To be honest, nothing could have prepared me for that record. I’d revisit it every few months over the year, and each time I’d be struck not only by the raw and heartbreaking lyricism, but by the considerable compositional merit of the record. Despite how quickly the album was made and the flow-of-consciousness style of songwriting present throughout the whole thing, the songs are individually memorable in their own right. Of course, it’s Phil’s immeasurable struggle and its portrayal throughout A Crow Looked at Me that has cemented it as one of the most iconic records in the Mount Eerie discography.
So that leaves us in 2018, with the new Mount Eerie project, Now Only. Oddly enough, it begins in the same way Crow does: with a major chord. “I sing to you”, Elverum addresses his wife; in conjunction with the harrowing line “death is real” that starts off the last record, it sets somewhat of a different tone. If Crow was an immediate reaction to Geneviève’s death, Now Only is a reflection of Phil’s spiraling thoughts that have only grown more convoluted with time. The tone of this record compared to the last is ultimately decided by its grand realization: death is not only real, but also permanent.
Now Only brings necessary context not only to Phil’s relationship with his late wife, but to his relationship with death in general. On the second track, “Distortion”, he recounts his past encounters with mortality. Elverum provides flashbacks of his childhood where he first considered the true meaning of someone being gone, and whether that is necessarily defined by death. This is a topic that has been prevalent throughout much of Phil’s work in the past: what is the true end of human consciousness?
It is eventually revealed that Geneviève was actually only the second dead body he’d seen in his life, after only a great grandfather whose death didn’t leave him particularly disillusioned (that is, until he saw his open coffin). Despite having been someone who’d philosophized on the meaning of death for much of his artistic career, Phil essentially shares here that nothing is as blunt and unforgiving as witnessing death in its physical form. He clarifies in the opening lines of “Distortion” that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he knows that he’s still singing to Geneviève, because she still exists in his thoughts.
Similar to its predecessor, much of the lyricism on Now Only is delivered in a flow-of-consciousness style, making it especially moving when Elverum delivers the occasional vocal harmony as each song builds tension. These harmonies, combined with the extra layers of instrumentation, make much of this record feel closer to the more fleshed-out material he released on past Mount Eerie and Microphone records. It often functions as another layer of dissonance, conflicting with the raw and bleak proclamations on the record, particularly on the title track of the record, where the refrain very matter-of-factly talks about different ways people can die, backed by an oddly poppy guitar and drum progression.
All in all, Now Only is another fascinating and harrowing look into Phil Elverum’s thoughts, as he continues to openly share his experiences that are unimaginable to many. This album not only conveys the depression associated with loss, but also the curiosity and confusion that comes along with it, especially when there’s a wide societal expectation that one must “move on” eventually. It would be unfair to consider either A Crow Looked at Me or Now Only as simply “death” records; that logic would simply treat death as a monolithic event rather than as a concept with multiple angles.
Beyond life and death, this record contemplates existence. On “Crow, Pt 2.”, the record’s final track, Phil recounts all of the places and objects in in which he still feels his wife, and ends up coming back to reminding himself that she’s no longer present in his world. There is a particularly paradoxical element to this record in that it reinforces the fact that death isn’t poetic, yet through music it depicts true loss in ways that few other records can. It feels somehow wrong to say that I look forward to the next Mount Eerie record; in fact, I’ll probably avoid it for a few weeks like I did the last two. That’s not to say both Crow and Now Only aren’t beautiful or essential records; if anything, it speaks to Phil Elverum’s ability to recreate a world of tragic and uncomfortable reality.