The one great unifier, death, has been a subject of art for as long as art has existed. Yet interestingly, and perhaps tellingly of our species, we usually speak about death in hushed tones; painting the corners, rarely ever risking to approach the subject head on. We use extensive metaphors, letting symbology carry the weight of that which we're too afraid to speak about directly, and do anything in our power to make the business any less unsavory.
Yet Phil Elverum, for lack of a better description, has made talking about death frankly his chief business for the last year and change. Since the passing of his wife and creative partner Geneviève Castrée in 2016, Elverum's Mount Eerie project has still kept many of its signature avant-folk sounds, though now there is only one decisive subject matter overarching the project, death. Last year's A Crow Looked At Me
was Mount Eerie's first release since Castrée's death, and though a sprawling and brooding take on grief, loss, hospital hallways and misery, it returned time and time again to death, death and all that it has taken from him. Almost a year later now Mount Eerie has followed up A Crow Looked At Me
with his latest album Now Only
, the spiritual successor and a continuation of Elverum's public grieving process.
Part of what makes Mount Eerie's latest endeavors so affecting is Elverum's insistence on dressing down his work as much as possible, writing what he terms "barely music". This was expounded upon in A Crow Looked At Me
as he sang, "Death is real / And it's not for singing about / It's not for making into art / When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb."
picks up where he left off on this matter, with much of the album's lyrical content taking the form of sing-spoken prose presented as a rhythmic stream-of-consciousness. "Tintin in Tibet" revisits the couple's life before cancer, and without pause for nearly five minutes Everum details every little aspect of his and Castree's life together, the sublime and ordinary alike. But it's the titular track that best exemplifies Mount Eerie's non-fiction artistic style best, as he recalls the year on the road he spent touring A Crow Looked At Me
"And the next thing I knew I was standing in the dirt
Under the desert sky at night outside Phoenix
At a music festival that had paid to fly me in
To play death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs
Standing in the dust next to an idling bus
With Skrillex inside and the sound of subwoofers in the distance"
But besides providing an unfiltered account of his mental state and his life post-death, "Now Only", along with some of the rest of the tracks seems to hint that Elverum is slowly recovering. I certainly wouldn't say healing, that sounds too clean, but if A Crow Looked At Me
was the sound of a shell-shocked man looking into the void then Now Only
is him slowly coming to his senses and picking up some of the pieces. There's a sense of (morbid) humor in him singing songs about cancer and death to drugged out party-goers, but also moments where Elverum sees past death, (begrudgingly) appreciating what he had before his wife was taken from him.
, like its predecessor, is hardly an album that you would approach with the intention to consume in a sense of careless pleasure seeking. It's raw and painful, and despite its artistic merits, hard to take anything away from except for the sense of one person's ceaseless internal grief. But as much or as little is it may mean to us as listeners is irrelevant, because in Now Only
, Phil Elverum might just be finding his way to live in a world without his light.