by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
The narrative might be tiresome at this point, but late-career comebacks are still breathtaking. In the case of Phil Elverum, this isn’t so much a comeback as a re-emergence as an embraced icon of indie music. Elverum, who has been churning out music for the last twenty years, already pumped out two class albums at his career’s advent, only to hush himself away into semi-obscurity with a series of rewarding, but esoteric releases under the moniker Mount Eerie. There were always fans there though. Always. What seems even more unfathomable are the circumstances under which Elverum’s career resurgence has come about: the death of his wife Genevieve Castree. The paradoxical nature of his newfound success, the joy, and the heartache does a number on me, so I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to tour A Crow Looked at Me (a difficulty that Elverum admitted to prior to his first ever show previewing Crow’s songs).
If A Crow Looked at Me and its subsequent revitalization of Mount Eerie was a headfuck, you can only imagine that out of all that happiness and devastation there would be some type of release - even better, “reckoning” - to embody THIS ongoing struggle. Sure enough, just a week shy of Crow’s one year anniversary, comes a new Mount Eerie record, Now Only. Those who struggled with the subject matter on Crow may not find the respite they are looking for here, but the buoyancy and beauty of these stories manage to never despair and even more so, these songs achieve a level of catharsis that felt unattainable on Elverum’s last release. Crow may be an unmatched document of death, but Now Only remembers that life must go forward, even if we don’t always feel strong enough to ourselves.
Those who listened to early single “Distortion” may have their expectations confounded upon initial listens. That song’s daunting length, metal-indebted introductory roars, and the harrowing nature of the storytelling may have even scared away a few potential listeners who “had their fill” with Crow. In the interest of full disclosure, I only listened to Crow once in its entirety. That singular instance felt so defining of the work itself that it never made sense for me to pick it back up. Let me explain: the first (and last) time I heard Crow was in a one-man tent, on top of an Appalachian mountain, in the late winter, in a violent and completely unexpected thunderstorm. Yes, it was dark too. Worrying over my leaky tent (fuck you, Big Agnes), listening to Crow, and hearing the not-distant-at-all groan of trees nearby, I was terrified: terrified of death in an abstract sense, terrified of it in a much more immediate and nearly-tangible sense, and terrified of the pain and anguish reverberating through my headphones. Elverum’s music, both as The Microphones and Mount Eerie, has always felt elemental, but my experience with Crow brought that correspondence to the forefront in a truly haunting way.
After an experience like that, I had enjoyed what I heard and felt that not only could no experience ever match that particular listening experience, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to revisit the feeling of intimacy with death Elverum evoked there. And upon the initial release of “Distortion,” feeling the blackness of the song’s introduction rattle through my bones, I shut that shit off almost immediately. No way was I going to subject myself to that bullshit. The newspaper is practically printed with the boiled blood of our population, I didn’t need my mortality to be rubbed in my face again.
But after a few weeks, I calmed down a little. The song came on in shuffle and without recognizing what Mount Eerie release it was attached to I let it play through. What I found in the song was not as Will Toledo once described similarly sorrowful Carrie and Lowell - “a successful exercise in generating sadness,” as he so infamously (and idiotically) wrote. “Distortion” was as sprawling, as ruminative, as poetic, and as devastating as modern music gets. The song never cowers in fear, but in the same way that Elverum has always sat and stared directly into the black canyon of death, he was again doing so here, recalling his first experience with death and observing how his feelings about it changed leading up to his wife’s death. Recognizing death as a continuum - not unlike William Cullen Bryant once famously did in Thanatopsis - as something he will take part in, the listener will take part in, all before silencing with the closing lines “And then distortion/ And then the silence of space/ The Night Palace/ The ocean blurring/ But in my tears right now/ Light gleams.” With this nimble libretto Elverum recalls all the fury and power of death, but resolves to use that bald power as a reminder of just how glorious life is in the face of something so dark and mysterious.
It’s a harrowing act to perform and even more so to convey, but all throughout Now Only, Elverum uses his platform to extol and celebrate death through life. As first track “Tintin in Tibet” can attest, there is much transcendent beauty to be mined from the grotesque reality of death. With her loss hovering nearby Elverum recounts a series of memorable moments with his wife, from the mundane (“And we did that and brought some food to eat and went through some big trees”) to much broader, sweeping admissions of their love (“Abandoned and in love, totally insane, apart from the rest of the world”). The minutiae of life and the expanse of love married against a pastoral tableau of Meares Island, again beautifully painting the significance of these small moments as monuments not unlike the venerable mountains of which he sings so reverently.
Elsewhere, most notably on “Now Only,” a brooding and lovely guitar melody juxtaposes with a blithe honky-tonk chorus which is truly anything but brooding. Elverum spends the songs verses recalling time spent in a hospital waiting room before intoning on the chorus “But people get cancer and die/ People get hit by trucks and die/ People just living their lives/ Get erased for no reason with the rest of us.” It’s a striking and catchy moment on the record, and surprisingly strengthens the poignancy of the moment by reminding us, once again, that death is simultaneously the most ponderous and overwrought human experience. Come the song’s conclusion he is wrestling with the ineffable feeling of being at a festival performing songs about death within earshot of a Skrillex-fueled rave. The image of Eleverum leaning against a Skrillex tour bus is easily the most amusing contrasts on the record, as he conveys the irony of singing such heavy-hearted songs to audiences around the globe.
Some of this might be too heavy for some, but if you were able to truck through more than one listen of Crow, than this album will feel like a welcome relief, like he is finally getting some resolve. Eleverum even admits as much while scattering his wife’s ashes in the gentle thrum of “Earth”: “Against my will I feel a little bit of solace creeping in.” Similarly on subsequent track “Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup,” he hopefully confesses “Now after you died/ I wonder what could beacon me forward into the rest of life/ I can glimpse occasional moments/ Gleaming like bonfires burning from across the fjord” just as his strumming picks up steam. Paired with the last song “Crow, Pt. 2”, Elverum proves to us that though his lyrics have gotten more literal recently, he is still only tracing the thematic lineage linking his entire body of work together: the inextricable link between mankind and nature. Despite being twenty years older than he was when he released some of his most celebrated works, he is still there, on the mountain, and feeling small in the face of the elements. But with Crow and commensurately with Now Only, Elverum has come to an accord with the natural world, experiencing his most profound and intimate moments in life as if they themselves carried the same sheer power and force of the wind.