Using your life as fodder for your art seems to be the expected default when you’re a musician. But that can be as much of a burden as it a free license. There’s something particularly daunting about this expectation if you’re a singer-songwriter who largely dabbles in an acoustic format, because there’s nowhere to hide. This is magnified a thousand fold when you have to talk about something that’s as heavy as death. Such was the place that Phil Elverum, who performs under the Mount Eerie moniker, found himself in after the death of his wife Genevieve, from cancer. He poured those feelings and that moment into 2017’s A Crow Looked at Me. With such an intense experience, it would be understandable if Elverum wanted to do something different. Instead, Mount Eerie’s follow-up, Now Only (P.W. Elverum & Sun) dives deeper into the aftermath.
Now Only serves as a companion piece to A Crow Looked at Me, but works just as well as a stand-alone record. It feels weird to talk about Now Only as a contained narrative as it does concern itself with continuing life after death. But it’s not that Elverum is using these songs to close a chapter, but merely presenting a slice of life. As such, there are a number of moments covered, from sitting in a hospital waiting room to making breakfast for his daughter to remembering when he spread his wife’s ashes to touring for A Crow Looked at Me, which brought with it the weird experience of being applauded for singing about his dead wife. It’s a self-aware balancing act that Elverum acknowledges throughout the record.
Fittingly, the music is just as intimate as the words, with most of the songs built around a sparse guitar. However, the intimacy of the words and the way Elverum delivers them, many tracks come off like spoken word set to music. On the first few spins, it’s easy to miss that there are actually some pretty full-out and full-on arrangements and performances. The title track, for example, starts with a fairly simple guitar part, but then expands into a deceptively jaunty tune with a chorus of “People get cancer and die. People get hit by trucks and die.” There are the occasional glimmers of humor reflecting the absurdity of situations in which Elverum has found himself in. “And the next thing I knew,” he relates. “I was standing in the dirt, under the desert sky at night outside Phoenix. at a music festival that had paid to fly me in, to play death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs.” As a listener, it’s nice to see that there are some moments of levity, but it feels like Elverum appreciates those moments also.
Now Only is a heavy, intense record, but it somehow feels lighter than that. One is able to appreciate the sharply drawn narratives, while at the same time feeling concern for Elverum. In a way, that’s the summation of the record: it’s not an easy listen, but that’s okay.