The track “Tintin in Tibet” is a reference to volume 20 of the Belgian comic “The Adventures of Tintin” (Photo courtesy of P.W. Elverum & Sun).
Last year, singer-songwriter Phil Elverum released an album titled “A Crow Looked at Me” while working under the artist name of Mount Eerie. The album was composed and recorded in the room of his house where Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, died late in 2016 from pancreatic cancer. Many publications wrote to say that it was one of the greatest albums to come out in 2017, but it is a tough listen for anyone. The way Elverum mumbles—not really even singing—about the concept of death, and the harrowing reality of it, and all that it encompasses for the entirety of the album is so emotionally draining, leaving the listener feeling empty and broken at the end. And now, he has returned to sing more on that subject with the recently released “Now Only.”
The album is told through anecdotes of Elverum’s life, and the opener, “Tintin in Tibet,” discusses a few of those quiet little moments he had connecting with his wife while she was still alive: “I sing to you, Geneviève … You don’t exist … I sing to you though.” He recounts the first time meeting her and spending the evening at her abode early in his career. He talks about a few days later being with her in his truck out on a beach, just reading a book about the Himalayas. And then he connects it to how Geneviève talked about becoming molecules floating around up there on her deathbed. It is almost too stark, too real.
The lead single, and longest song, of the album, “Distortion,” has many winding tales all connected to coming to terms with the physicality of death. He sings about growing up and realizing he does not want to die and have life just cease. He had to read a biblical passage at his grandfather’s funeral, but he says the dead, embalmed body he saw before him spoke much more clearly than the verse he was reading from. A pregnancy scare at 23 threw him into an existential crisis on the meaning of fatherhood and how his progeny will see him. A documentary he saw on Jack Kerouac showed how the author was too mystified and never really cared for his family. The second dead body he sees in his life after his grandfather’s is his wife’s. She is kept alive in Elverum’s memories, but he knows that someday he will die as well.
The title track is the most melodic of all of them; at least the chorus of the song is since the rest is Elverum talking over drawn out chords strummed on his guitar. The chorus muses about how people die seemingly at random and how it happens singularly to those dying. During the verses of the song “Now Only,” Elverum talks about how his album last year gave him some notoriety and compelled a music festival to have him perform live. He mulls over the oddity of it. He stays up late talking with Father John Misty about writing songs, feeling it to be so absurd that he is alive. As he leaves, he is overcome with the thought of losing his wife’s memory and selling the feeling as merchandise.
Elverum is obviously distraught by the loss of his wife and what it means for him and his daughter, but this album does make it seem like he has gotten farther in the grievance process than on “A Crow Looked at Me.” Here he sings more about learning to cope rather than feeling totally empty on its predecessor. This also translates to greater usage of melody and consideration for what these pieces might sound like as songs. To reiterate the phrase littered throughout his 2017 album, “Death is real,” and because it happens to everyone inevitably, Elverum is asking the listener to look at it with unwavering vision. It is by no means a pretty occurrence, and by extension, neither is this album. However, the rawness of emotion portrayed here and the poetic descriptions and their interrelatedness all come together to form a very compelling piece of art.
Final Grade: A