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In 2017, Mount Eerie—the moniker of Phil Elverum—released his most sensitive and literal work to date. A Crow Looked at Me was written and recorded in the wake of the passing of his wife and fellow musician Geneviève Castreé Elverum, who lost her life to cancer. Now Only comes to us in just under a year’s time from the previous record, and as one can infer from the still-fresh wound her parting has left, it functions as a companion piece, carrying the same confounded pensiveness of its forbear and continuing the ever-running tape recorder of analysis on its effect on himself and their daughter.
One of the greatest lines from Crow comes early in “Real Death,” in which Elverum closes the opening paragraph by offering the following terse pontification on the death of a loved one: “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this.” Anyone who’s experienced a similar loss will tell you the same thing. You’re left with no integrated lesson; only the sullied belief in the good nature of your deity, if you so choose to believe in one. He may not be learning anything new per se this time around, but there is still much more to uncover about himself and the departed woman he loves.
This is what happens when long-form half-spoken-half-sung writing goes right. Hopefully the secret ingredient isn’t personal tragedy, but Mark Kozelek has employed a likewise technique to nearly everything he’s worked on since Among the Leaves, and the approach wears very thin within no time; particularly when we start receiving details of what Mark ate for dinner on any given night. Here, Elverum submits his second consecutive document of that otherwise tiresome, lackadaisical method in a respectable light. His words blur the line between prose and honest thought, always carefully considered and worth listening to every sentence for what it is.
“Distortion” begins with a short burst of its namesake, receding quickly to make way for lyricism, similarly to “The Glow, Pt. 2,” although it’s altogether less urgent, comfortably biding its time and occasionally poking its head out of the sand to maintain a reserved sprawl akin to “Spring.” His storytelling abilities are most pronounced on this track, taking us through decades of his life, hitting on small but crucial moments such as expressing an early yearning for semi-stardom to his parents as a child up to present day. He shies away from shame, going as far as detailing an instance of utmost vulnerability involving a pregnancy scare that resulted from a one-night stand. The anecdote is, on its face, indie rock tabloid fodder; but his delivery coupled with its placement in the story reject any possibility of reacting to it in that way. He polishes off that bit with, “But she had her period eventually and I went back to being 23.” It’s a very humanizing road bump on the travelogue that brought him and Geneviève to each other, and the difference between this intimate peek into one’s life and, say, Kozelek crooning about his brief tryst with Rachel Goswell, is that the former is honest and touching sans sensationalism. Amid the eleven minutes of narrative, Elverum doesn’t lose sight of spatial sonic qualities, introducing touches of aching piano and crestfallen vocal harmonies on calculated cues; the one constant being a forlorn fingerpicking pattern.
While clocking in at a few minutes more than Crow, Now Only feels more digestible. This could be boiled down to a shorter track listing, but perhaps this is owed to Elverum’s assuredness in the grasp he has on his subject. After much rumination, he’s able to connect puzzle pieces from the past, whether it’s shades of Geneviève’s imperfect upbringing he sees in Jan Kerouac while watching a documentary of the writer’s infamous father, or death’s swift truncation of artistry shared by both Geneviève and painter Nikolai Astrup. The parallels and poetry of the situation are all he sees nowadays, and the absurdity of the result of his fandom’s support is hardly lost on him in the baffled line: “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.” The humor hasn’t failed to enter the Mount Eerie hemisphere, but even the man who not long ago touted the laugh-out-loud, haiku-posting dark horse of a Twitter account does not have time to chuckle at such an incongruous response.
Unfortunate that this onus should befall Phil Elverum, however he’s not ill-equipped to confront the unfairness with art. Looking back and to the present, there’s Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” and there’s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, to name only two. One turns death into a maxim of Hallmark Channel proportions while the other is a heady, bookish, free associative meditation on the matter. Disparate, yes, but everyone has their own way of grieving. Clapton was no stranger to balladry at the time and what he did made sense. Cave was no stranger to darkly atmospheric tone poems and what he did made sense. Now Only is a more focused and musically satisfying second chapter in the ongoing chronicle of Geneviève’s postmortem, constructed carefully by the hands of its master of lo-fi contemplation. It makes sense, and he’s making sense of it.
You may purchase the record here.
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