Album Review: Mount Eerie - Now Only
“Death is real,” began Phil Elverum on last year’s Mount Eerie album A Crow Looked At Me. It was a phrase he returned to a few times throughout the album, as a bottom line to all the memories of his dead wife that he was recalling, a floor he would hit when the visions slipped away. “I sing to you,” he begins on that album’s companion piece Now Only, released a year on. It’s a signal that this album is still going to be about the loss of his love, but one that shows a bit of distance, a new perspective, and the healing power of music, which is explored throughout the album’s six tracks.
’Tintin in Tibet’ is the opener of Now Only, and with that opening phrase and the following recounting of Elverum and Geneviève’s early courtship, it’s our reintroduction to Phil, still grieving, but a year further down the line. He might still talk about her on her death bed and how their daughter’s life would be enriched if she had a living mother, but there is some humour detectable too. He states how patently ludicrous it is that he’s been out on the road singing songs about deepest depression to drunk people at festivals around the world. He also spends less time hanging about in her final days, devoting more time to their happier ones; he sings about play-wrestling together, travelling around together to play shows for nobody, getting lost in the middle of nowhere together, having the times of their lives – and he’s singing it all to her.
’Distortion’ is the first song to show musically that Elverum is progressing, imbuing his spare acoustic with shots of the deep and distorted guitar that had come to characterise his work prior to Crow. In its sprawling 11 minutes, Elverum recounts many different stories from throughout his life; childhood readings from the Bible, seeing his first dead body (the second was Geneviève, he tells us later), his recollections of his early days touring, watching a documentary about Jack Kerouac on a flight to Australia. In this song and the following ‘Now Only’, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Mark Kozelek in his sing-speaking style. Much like the Sun Kil Moon man, Elverum sounds on ‘Distortion’ and ‘Now Only’ like he’s just stringing together different thoughts and occurrences that may or may not have thematic unity, but to him it makes sense. However, it’s hard to imagine Kozelek producing a chorus like that of the one on ‘Now Only’. Elverum’s morbid humour is crystallised in this chorus, where he takes a time out from discussing death to insert a sprightly piano riff accompanying him singing sweetly “people get cancer and die/ people get hit by trucks and die.” It’s one of the clearest signs that he’s healing and progressing, although at the end of the song he sees the phantom of his dead wife floating in the sky above him - so he’s not fully healed yet (if he ever will be).
The mention of Kerouac in ‘Distortion’ is the first example of the many artists, musicians and pieces of art that come up on Now Only. It may have been unconscious, but it seems like these are the things that have truly helped him to process and heal. On ‘Now Only’ he sings about having a conversation with Weyes Blood and Father John Misty about songwriting, before having a wild night of childish fun. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘Earth’, the darkest point on the album, wherein he describes receiving Geneviève’s ashes, spreading them in various places, and then seeing “actual chunks of [her] bones” in the garden. At one point he’s high atop the mountain where he spread a portion of her, and he can “hear Wolves In The Throne Room playing ‘I Will Lay Down My Bones Among The Rocks and Roots’,” and an actual muted sample of that song comes drifting in, like it’s being played somewhere over the horizon, carried on a breeze; it mirrors his diminishing anger perfectly.
The healing power of art is most pronounced on ‘Two Paintings By Nikolai Astrup’, a companion to ‘Soria Moria’ on Crow, where he described the titular painting by another Norwegian painter Theodor Kittleson. Once again on ‘Two Paintings’ the bulk of the song is him describing two images that have touched him; he points out fine details to the listener, perhaps seeing more than is actually there – including himself. Combined with delicate thrumming, ‘Two Paintings By Nikolai Astrup’ brings the images to life, particularly the billowing smoke of ‘Midsummer Night Bonfires’. But, just when you think his involvement in these paintings is distracting him from the overbearing theme of the album, he mentions how Nikolai Astrup died young, and then goes into a lengthy fantasy about dying in a plane crash. These are the realities of dealing with such profound loss – one moment it’s not there, the next you’re prepared to sacrifice yourself so you can rejoin your lost love.
’Crow Pt. 2’ ends the album, and is the most directly connected to the previous album with its watery acoustic melody and revisiting of the symbolic bird. Just like ‘Crow’ on the end of that album, ‘Crow Pt. 2’ is an ode to their daughter, his re-affirming of his dedication to giving her a happy life, while ensuring that she’s as connected to her deceased mother as possible. This is often extremely tough though, as when he tries to put on music, which their “daughter sees, and asks for mama's record.” He then watches his daughter’s vague recognition of her mother’s voice coming from the speakers, leaving Phil “sobbing and eating eggs again.”
This final song is a message to listeners and “everybody who used to know us [who] seems concerned” – that he's still suffering and he needs their patience. The more important message to take away though is from the heart of Now Only, on its title track: “These waves hit less frequently/ They thin and then they are gone/ You are gone and then your echo is gone/ And then the crying is gone.” It’s a certain declaration of moving on, as is the release of Now Only. Whether the waves will have died down enough for him to return to other topics on the next Mount Eerie album is yet to be heard. But, if he does make another album in honour of his deceased wife, he’s proven here that he still has enough love and poetry in him to make it a deeply resonant and worthwhile listen.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 20th March 2018.