In 2017 Phil Elverum’s project, Mount Eerie, released A Crow Looked At Me. The album, recorded in the wake of his wife’s death, achieved something close to the impossible. Those eleven songs placed the agony of grief inside a time-capsule. However, the grief was not contained or buried, but it was held, and represented in such a way that it became art without artifice. Elverum, himself, commented that the album was barely music. The project had its own hypnotic force.
The intimacy achieved by the sharing of loss placed the listener in an unusual and rare place. We became invited intruders, observers to an unfathomable pain. We wanted to reach out to the artist, and offer comfort – knowing that sometimes there is no comfort to be offered. We were drawn in and exposed to something significant at the core of humanity. Listener and artist experienced hopelessness together.
Culture is heavily populated with tributes to the dead. Art assembles trinkets and testimonials. The process of capturing this aspect of the human experience often produces romantic reflections of the lives we grieve. Mount Eerie didn’t offer a superficial document of loss. He stood up to the brink. He occupied a place where he was breaking art to make art at the tipping-point of experience.
Geneviève Elverum, a poet, illustrator, and musician died only four months after the birth of her child. Mount Eerie’s album documented the existential position, and the painful unfolding of events around the death of a creative force, a wife, and a mother. Now Phil Elverum has returned, and Mount Eerie has a new album called Now Only. The sequence of songs here are not as raw, or overwhelming as those contained on A Crow Looked At Me. They represent a very welcome next-step.
Now Only, is the only album that Mount Eerie could have made to address the lingering constants experienced in the process of movement. Previous albums from Elverum were experimental, sometimes wilfully unusual. Instead of picking up easier paths, or altering course, he would demand more from his instruments than they were designed for. They often brought incredible rewards, they sometimes failed. Whatever the result, things were always interesting. Having dismantled the artifice of making music on his previous album, Elverum is here in the now, dismantling grief. Pain remains, but these are new songs. Elverum is getting on with being an artist moving beyond his bravest expression. He’s getting on with being a father to a motherless child.
Again, with no room for romantic notions of life, Now Only captures the realness of being. Elverum catalogs memories; opening track “Tintin in Tibet” looks to the fictions that artist had shared with his love. “We thought of devotion and snow and distant longing / and the Himalayan air, high and cold with a bell ringing out.” is a line that shows the intimacy of lovers who share the reading of a book, and the dreams that they discuss. “Distortion”, the next track in the sequence, crashes in. Memory, ghosts forming, and the losing grip of things – all warp the reality of the now. But also, we learn that even at our happiest we distort reality.
When Elverum sings about a documentary on the life of Jack Kerouac, it’s the unreality of his persona that he removes. Exposing Kerouac through the eyes of the Beatnik’s daughter reveals a deadbeat drunk. Those on existential quests surely have to experience pain, or they’re selling an unsustainable something. Mount Eerie moves the focus, ever-so-slightly to the concept of legacy, and Now Only feels like a letter to his own future in non-existence. The truth will set all things free. Pain is not a license for fucking things up, but it does offer perspective, and forgiveness is issued.
Elverum builds a thin footbridge between pain and hope in such a way that other people experiencing grief can look up and see a sliver of light in the darkness. The light is not a comfort or release. It is acceptance. There’s a view that could be leveled at Mount Eerie in regard to the self-indulgence of this kind of release.
However, if you can sit in the center of these songs, and deal with the challenges that they scatter over you, you’ll see that the indulgence is one of self-repair. In showing that we repair ourselves to be of service to others Elverum removes himself from any possible charge of becoming deadbeat, like those semi-fictional figures we previously mentioned. A more conscious father, a more heroic artist – simply achieving his status by being honest and moving forward.
HURRY – LISTEN – MOUNT EERIE
PHOTOGRAPH BY GENEVIÈVE ELVERUM