Mount Eerie’s 2017 album, A Crow Looked at Me seemed to be the culmination of Phil Elverum’s longtime preoccupations with shapes and void, with nature and death. What made the record uncommon in his discography were the lamentable circumstances of his wife’s passing, which provided the subject matter for the songs and the aura of their recording and release. A Crow Looked at Me is one of the most remarkable folk albums ever produced. But it’s difficult to imagine any listener finishing A Crow Looked at Me and thinking they need any more of it.
Now Only is more of it.
Elverum, so reluctant to be deified, so demonstrably concerned about artistic integrity, seems the musician least capable of “selling out”. While that sense of conviction and commitment remain true in this new release, the six songs presented here are evidence of extending a singular moment into an ongoing musical arc. By persisting with a subject matter that was fleeting, Elverum joins his music to other contexts and considerations that were not pertinent the first time.
Allusion, reprise, and self-reference are central features of the Mount Eerie catalogue, and something Now Only shares with A Crow Looked at Me is a tendency to redefine former ideas within the songwriter’s death-changed reality. Several years ago, Elverum produced “condensed versions” of Clear Moon and Ocean Roar in which all songs from each album were “played at the same time on top of each other”. If one were to stack Now Only on top of A Crow Looked at Me, a new refrain of “I sing to you” would cohere perfectly with the older one, “Death is real”.
In that opening song, “Tintin in Tibet”, Elverum offers a miniature version of the entire album’s mission, which is to come to terms with singing to, and about, a deceased subject — despite the certainty that all that remains is dust and bone. In between attempts to square his musical project with his philosophical outlook, he offers sketches of memories that revive the subject poetically. Each enlivening moment ends with his wife returning to the ground.
In “Distortion”, the longest song on the album, Elverum first questions his role in reenacting his wife for their daughter, which is a theme shared with A Crow Looked at Me. Another noteworthy section of “Distortion” remembers a younger version of the singer pondering the finality of death and finding little sense in Psalmic metaphors. Here the singer, who just one year ago asked us to consider the ravens, prefers the metaphor-free clarity of a dead body.
Yet “Distortion” deadens to some degree in comparison to other songwriters who have already mastered some of the same territory and techniques Elverum arrives at on Now Only. His evocation of ancestors and descendants is thought-provoking, but not nearly as effective as the similar approach of a song like Why?’s more compact “Berkeley by Hearseback”. In the next song, “Now Only”, when Elverum sings about playing his songs to a festival crowd, being in proximity to Skrillex and hanging out with Weyes Blood and Father John Misty, the content and form of the song are so close to what Mark Kozelek already expressed in “The Possum” that the comparison is inevitable.
Kozelek is relevant to this discussion because he, too, followed a deathly album (Sun Kil Moon’s Benji) with one even more diaristic than its predecessor (the astonishing Universal Themes). Kozelek’s journey into something like hypergraphia has been fascinating to watch and listen to. It is not so clear that he or music listeners need Elverum’s company in that space.
“Earth” confirms what works best and most uniquely about this phase of Mount Eerie, which is the ability for Elverum to continue to draw on his fertile musical past for reprises and variations. “Earth” is like a Wind’s Poem relic uncovered. The development of the song, which builds to a Wolves in the Throne Room reference, is much more assured, less arch than “Now Only”. “Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup” brings forth Lost Wisdom‘s “Who?” and then fuses that melody/lyric to the artistic inspirations and remembrances surrounding A Crow Looked at Me.
As someone who spent incalculable hours listening to Lost Wisdom and Wind’s Poem while staring into Theodor Kittelsen paintings, who was therefore gobsmacked by Elverum’s “Soria Moria”, and who saw kinship between A Crow Looked at Me and painter Brian Kershisnik, I’m all but destined to like “Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup”. Yet I suspect that even if those associations didn’t exist, I would still admire the song for its musical structure, for its resurrection of a theme from “Grave Robbers”, and for the way the singer interweaves his experiences with the artist and the figures featured in the paintings. There’s a generative energy to the song that contrasts with the supposed finality of death.
“Crow Pt. 2” is perhaps a coda for A Crow Looked at Me. In that album, I sensed the familiar yearning for a “quiet echo on loud wind”. Here Elverum characterizes his wife as that quiet echo, whose physical forms and reminders are diminishing, disappearing, and gone. By album’s end, the boy who understood his great-grandfather’s dead body is certain only of his wife’s bones in the ground. Now Only becomes a more downbeat album than A Crow Looked at Me and a less necessary one.
Now Only‘s insistence on nothingness imposes something on listeners who pay to spend time with that certainty. Other musicians show us that there is a middle area between Elverum’s testimony, which finds nothing and pop music that asks nothing of its audience, that kills the listener’s time. Some pop bands have also probed the mysteries of life and death. Half a century ago, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich sang “Where From, Where To?,” a pop/rock variation on Paul Gauguin’s painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
At present, the next generation of rock musicians after Phil Elverum is wrestling with death and big questions, as did Sorority Noise on last year’s You’re Not As _____ As You Think and Modern Baseball on 2016’s Holy Ghost. In a life spent making music, Phil Elverum has often channeled ancient questions and conjured other worlds. If he’s choosing to be confined to Now Only, then that’s his choice alone to make, especially in a time of mourning. But there’s always wisdom to be found in considering the ravens.