Mount Eerie’s singer-songwriter Phil Elverum lost his wife, Geneviève Castrée, to pancreatic cancer in 2016. His subsequent albums, A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only captured his grief and mourning. Through his bereavement, he realized the painful truth that life continues despite a loss. This was encapsulated by his toddler daughter’s need for an engaged father. Released in September, (after) is the live recording of Elverum’s 2017 set at the Le Guess Who? festival in the Netherlands. The album is soul-bearing as the simple instrumentation, and disconsolate lyrics adroitly illustrate Elverum’s heartache. The entire album reflects a lost intimacy and meditation on a life without that affinity. With courage and fortitude, (after) reveals Elverum’s mourning and his enduring love for his wife and daughter.
Recorded at Jacobikerk, a 13th-century Gothic cathedral located in Utrecht, Elverum performs with just his guitar. As the album’s first words transpire “death is real”, the image of a grief-stricken artist juxtaposed to the simple instrumentation and the cathedral’s interior austerity, forces the audience and listeners to share his bereavement. The opening track, “Real Death”, reflects his inner processing of the emotional challenges rendered by the reminders of Geneviève’s life. An authentic representation of grief, he unflinchingly depicts the moments when his suffering resurfaced without warning: “A week after you died a package with your name on it came and inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret and collapsed there on the front steps I wailed”.
The lyrics read as a stream of consciousness, with the guitar’s gentle hum ensconcing Elverum’s thoughts. Mourning generally envelops an individual with innumerable thoughts and emotions. “Real Death”‘s use of stream of consciousness illustrates the rawness associated with multitudinous thinking. In a non-western understanding of stream of consciousness, Buddhists understand the practice as a method to develop mindfulness, self-knowledge, and wisdom. Yet Elverum rejects awareness and prefers to be left unchanged in his self-knowledge: “And I don’t want to learn anything from this / I love you”. Any act of self-awareness threatens to augment the memories Elverum continues to cherish.
Yet Elverum is also haunted by his memories of Geneviève. As depicted in “Ravens” and “When I Take the Garbage Out”, material objects remind him of her life and their love. He apologizes for giving away her clothing then gently concedes “I had too”. Their home becomes the primary object symbolizing their life, her illness, and passing. It’s almost incomprehensible for a non-widow to understand the torment caused by removing personal items. It is too easy to dismiss the attachment to materiality as glib, but these objects trigger memories. By committing these objects to recorded music, Elverum concertizes memories even though the objects may no longer be tangible. In doing so, he connects his past to both his present and future. As he realizes in “Distortion”, “And is it my job now to hold whatever’s left of you for all time? And to reenact you for our daughter’s life?” He answers the former by recording A Crow Looked at Me, Now Only, and (after). But questions surrounding his daughter remains.
Despite dreaming of self-negation in “Emptiness pt. 2”, Elverum still has a child who needs her father. Whereas most of the album contends with his mourning, he shifts focus to his daughter in “Crow” and “Crow pt. 2”. In “Crow” he asks, “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you? Smoldering and fascist with no mother.” In “Crow pt. 2”, the baby has grown into a child yet the love between father, daughter, and lost mother is still apparent. As Elverum sings, “Wailing and moaning for you / But also living, talking about school / Making food, just surviving and still containing love.” Elverum’s focus on the mundane exemplifies death’s coldest consequence. When the deceased get bills and the baby becomes a child, these are the harsh reminders of life’s continuation. (after) makes it indelibly clear; death is the hardest on the living since people “Get erased for no reason with the rest of us watching from the side / And some people have to survive / And find a way to feel lucky to still be alive.”
Elverum’s puts the album’s title in parentheses to designate the music and his current existence are secondary to his past with Geneviève. His life after her death is the side note whereas their life together was the principal experience. Elverum wrote these songs while grieving and never intended to release this music. Likewise, the performance at Jacobikerk was not supposed to be recorded. For Elverum, these songs are private and the ruminations warrant solitude. Hence, the applause recorded between songs is clashing. With nothing else to focus on other than Elverum’s lyrics and guitar, listeners will find themselves fully immersed in his misery.
Frankly, there is no escape. But then listeners are roughly wretched out of his spell by the audience’s applause. Every time, the clapping seems inappropriate since Elverum just musically relieved his inner turmoil. There are moments when the audience is hesitant, they realize that approbation isn’t a befitting response. Similarly, they are stone silent during the performance; there are no coughs, hushed whispers, or errant cellphones. They are entranced by the melancholy and maintain silence to demonstrate their reverence.
Let’s rewrite that narrative. Consider the applause not an acclamation for the performance rather for Elverum’s strength. (after) is an honest and raw portrayal of sorrow, an audacious creative act. The album forces his audience to experience his remorse while establishing the musical space between artist and fan as a confessional. Deeply moving and unapologetically grieved, Elverum deftly captures the emotional response to death and the unavoidable realization that life continues.