BY PARKER KLYN
It’s strange to call Mount Eerie’s previous record one of my “favorite” albums. It’s a piece of music that’s so oppressive, so dark, so anti-optimism that it’s one of the few records where saying “it’s great” and saying “I enjoy it” don’t have to be synonymous.
Phil Elverum, who records as Mount Eerie, lost his wife, Geneviève, to pancreatic cancer in July 2016, leaving behind their daughter. In the wake of her death, Elverum released “A Crow Looked At Me,” an album that didn’t attempt to find any deeper meaning or metaphor for death; as I said in my review, Elverum clearly subscribes to the simple idea that people are here, and then they disappear.
Mount Eerie’s newest album, “Now Only,” has been presented as something of a companion piece to the high-stakes “A Crow Looked At Me.” After many listens, I can firmly say it transcends that status. “Now Only” is a stunning piece of music, the latest in a long line of seminal folk music that transport the listener to another world.
“A Crow Looked At Me,” for all its despair, felt focused. In contrast, “Now Only” is sprawling and scattered. It’s only six tracks, and yet it’s 44 minutes. All but one track is five minutes or longer. Elverum may be singing about something completely different at the conclusion of a song than he was at the beginning.
Album centerpiece “Distortion” starts and ends with Elverum talking to his wife, but in the eleven minutes between, he discusses his great-grandfather’s dead body, the realization that death is real, his travels as a backpacker, a pregnancy scare and missing his loved ones so much after seeing someone with a striking resemblance that he goes home.
Most crushing, he concludes with the moment in which Geneviève died. “I watched you turn from alive to dead right here in our house / And I looked around the room and asked ‘Are you here?’ / And you weren’t, and you are not here.”
Young people, generally speaking, don’t go through that type of devastation. So to hear it so clearly is a shock, even after knowing for years about her illness. On “Now Only,” Elverum focuses on the daily experiences he faces after losing the love of his life and the mother of his daughter.
On “Earth,” there’s an over distorted guitar, and an aggravated Elverum says “I don’t want to live with this feeling any longer than I have to / But I also don’t want you to be gone, so I talk about you all the time.” It’s a quick look into why he continues to make art referring to his wife’s death after saying, “Death is real … it’s not for turning into art” on “A Crow Looked At Me.”
“Earth”’s chorus is beautiful; I love Elverum’s vocal melodies over quietly driving guitars. “Now Only” is a far livelier piece of music than “A Crow Looked At Me.” “Distortion,” naturally, has loads of guitar feedback in the mix, as does the opening of “Earth.” “Crow” has somber, finger-picked guitar complemented by steel guitar tones, making it sound almost like a spacey Western soundtrack.
But the most shocking musical moment on “Now Only” is the chorus of the title track. At the song’s opening, Elverum is adamant that nobody can empathize with his pain (“No, my devastation is unique”). Then, the arrangement switches up to showcase an andante organic pop chorus. “People get cancer and die / People get hit by trucks and die / People just living their lives get erased for no reason.” Stunningly, it’s a moment of almost black humor from Elverum, letting us know that through it all, he’s not necessarily happy, but he’s okay.
“A Crow Looked At Me” opened my eyes to the devastation that Elverum experienced. “Now Only” may be self-indulgent and cluttered and bizarre, but more than all that, it’s poetic and poignant, an invaluable tool for people who may have lost loved ones of their own. And unlike “A Crow Looked At Me,” I can unequivocally say that I enjoyed every second of it.