Death is real
Someone’s there and then they’re not
It’s not for singing about
It’s not for turning into art
These are the famous words which open Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me, the heart-rending 2017 opus ruminating on death and the months of quiet devastation that follows. It’s a period of time a great many artist has attempted to capture the feelings or has strived to make sense of. While in the throes of grief, Phil Elverum used the instruments once owned by his wife, Geneviève Castrée (who succumbed to a bout with pancreatic cancer), and recorded a collection of muted, pained songs about living with an essential component of his life being taken away. “I don’t want to learn anything from this,” Elverum sings to close “Real Death,” the album’s opening song. “I love you.”
A Crow Looked at Me is not a bombastic rejection of cancer and death or celebration of life; it’s not a histrionic wail or primal scream. Listening to the album feels much like what actually happens when you’re ferrying your grief through your days; soberly sifting through belongings and memories with the stillness of the void threatening to swallow you whole. Elverum captured the despair of grief in its most mundane moments (freeway drives, apologetically giving away Castrée's clothes), because that’s mainly what grief is: Trying to live a life as it’s usually led (as boring as that is sometimes), trying to sail a vessel with a hole in the bottom.
Bereavement is a path where there are few metaphors, where there is no space for poetic remembrances. Everything is laid out in front of you. The memories of the deceased person you love, bright as day. The solemn ritual of throwing out their old things. The stinging of tears welling up in your eyes as you hold a package they ordered before they died. Avoiding certain rooms in the house they lived in. Knowing your way around a hospital, trying not to break down in the aisle of a grocery. The realization that everything in life is temporary, because life itself is temporary.
There is the cataloging of time passed from the date someone who was here once went away, the empty space of morning where their presence is replaced by bottomless silence. When death sweeps in and takes that person away, you remember everything about them; how ginger their touch or how booming their laugh was. You remember exactly what you were doing for days, weeks, months after their death.
Details pop up on A Crow Looked at Me in the form of log entries: Eleven days out, Elverum refuses to accept the ashes of his wife as her physical state. One week out, a package Castrée ordered -- a backpack for their daughter, at the time years away from starting school -- arrives and Elverum collapses on the front porch. Two months out, he sees the eyes of people around him, looking on in pity at the guy with the dead wife. Three months out, the photographs sprawled around the house Elverum and Castrée once shared start to erode the memory of the latter’s physical presence.
But the memory of her life lingers over the house, over the lives of Elverum and their daughter, like a thick fog. It’s interesting how memories become more powerful in the wake of loss.
I sing to you
I sing to you, Geneviève
I sing to you
You don’t exist
I sing to you, though
These are the famous words which open Now Only, for all intents and purposes, a companion document to last year’s A Crow Looked at Me. The album is an even more richly defined survey of grief, as it spans generations to fill in the details of Elverum’s life before, during, and after the light of Castrée shone through it. “Tintin in Tibet,” after briefly assessing a life still smarting from pummeling loss, captures early moments in the relationship of Castrée and Elverum: Traveling across water, walking through nature, kissing with a heavy citrus smell in the small space around, Elverum’s head in Castrée’s lap, reading the book from which this song derives its title.
Various works of art find their way as ephemera on both albums. “Two Paintings by Nicolai Astrup,” the penultimate song on Now Only, is a groundswell of low drone and avalanching feelings through the conduit of two choice selections of the Norwegian artist’s work; one (Midsummer Eve Bonfire) the wallpaper on his computer’s screen, the other (Foxgloves) a print hanging on the refrigerator. Elverum describes both in great detail and notes how Astrup died relatively young after building a home studio, “where he probably intended to keep painting his resonant life into old age.”
Flying over the Grand Canyon, Elverum imagines becoming part of the debris of a plane crash, only to snap out of it and acknowledge “the actual mess that death leaves behind.” He sings, “It just gets bulldozed in a panic by the living.” “Soria Moria,” the penultimate song on A Crow Looked at Me, features the low growl of distorted guitar and pained longing as a child (the line “I saw fireworks many miles away but didn’t hear them” serves as a powerful if somewhat unwitting metaphor), gaining a long-lasting love in adulthood, and losing it with searing immediacy, Castrée’s porcelain skin replaced by something “jaundiced and fucked.” The description of Soria Moria is essentially non-committal compared to those on “Two Paintings by Nicolai Astrup,” as urgent calamity sometimes blurs out the details.
The power of Elverum’s gentle singing voice -- as boyish as on his 2000 masterpiece as the Microphones, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water -- feels even more devastating here due to the fact it seems to have not aged a day in the two decades since, that not even a path as harsh as the death of his spouse can turn his voice into something more coarse than that of a sad, sensitive boy. His voice remains as tender as a wound, which makes these spartan songs about his deceased wife all the more painful.
On the eleven-minute “Distortion,” the idea of Elverum “reenacting [Castrée] for [their] daughter’s life” spirals into a multigenerational collection of scenes, reflecting themes of mortality and how our names live longer than our bodies and sometimes our actions. Each verse effortlessly weaves into the overall narrative: Elverum’s childhood desire to be remembered, him reciting the most well-known verse from Book of Psalms at his great-grandfather’s funeral and taking the meaning literally, a pregnancy scare shaking his world at age 23, watching a documentary on Jack Kerouac on a plane to Australia, and finally, watching Castrée pass away before his eyes and wondering about his own loss of life.
Routinely described an evocative songwriter -- elliptical, even -- Elverum on “Distortion” is masterful at arranging plain, stark details. He remembers the tiny room just off the freeway in Everett when he attended his grandfather’s funeral. The pregnancy scare he retells takes place in December 2001, after spending the summer and fall sleeping on lawns and “eating all the fruit from the tree like Tarzan or Walt Whitman,” fresh from the release and rapturous acclaim of his watershed moment, The Glow Pt. 2. He describes the nation he traveled around as “spiraling into war and mania, little flags were everywhere.”
The most chilling of these observations comes from the Kerouac documentary, where his daughter Jan was interviewed and described him as, according to Elverum, “this deadbeat drinking, watching [The] Three Stooges on TV, not acknowledging his paternity [...] taking cowardly refuge in his self-mythology.” Seeing Castrée in this woman’s image, Elverum is reminded of her recounting her own childhood; he describes her as a “sweet kid” (which he refers to their daughter as on “Crow,” the only song on either album not addressed directly to Castrée) neglected and “left to grow precariously.”
“And she had black hair and freckles and pale skin just like you,” Elverum sings. “And she spoke the hard truth, and slayed the gods just like you.”
If such a thing could be possible, Now Only’s title track colors in a slight touch of levity in the calcification of grief -- with Elverum recounting being flown to a music festival outside of Phoenix, Arizona “to play these death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs,” leaning against Skrillex’s tour bus and chatting with Weyes Blood and Father John Misty at 3 a.m. This anecdote and the song’s major-key chorus of, “People get cancer and die/People get hit by trucks and die” almost -- almost -- takes the gravity out of the things Elverum has been singing about, but then “Now Only” is buttoned by a quiet meditation.
This is what my life feels like now
Like I got abruptly dropped off by the side of the road
In the middle of a long horrible ride
In a hot van that was too full of confident chattering dudes
And the sound of tires receding
Taking in the night air I say
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