“I sing to you,” Phil Elverum intones in the opening line of his second album since the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée. While last year’s Mount Eerie record, “A Crow Looked at Me,” was written in the immediate weeks following Geneviève’s untimely death at 35 to pancreatic cancer, Phil’s second effort at translating his crushing grief into a musical medium reveals that his individual pain of continuing life as a widower, though having grown more distant from the loss that caused it, continues its overbearing shadow upon the songwriter’s life and art.
Attempting to listen to “Now Only” makes for a uniquely uncomfortable experience, as Phil’s straight-forward, literal observations of his grief unfold like unadorned ramblings in a private journal. With each successive song opening up a candid glance into absolute suffering, Elverum forces his listeners to engage in an involuntary act of voyeuristic examination.
In contrast to “A Crow Looked at Me,” the lyrical center of the tracks on “Now Only” focus around Elverum’s attempts to continue a life of desolation, desperately grasping for direction in the wake of a senseless and wanton loss. In effect, his lyrics spend no time questioning cosmic or religious undertones, but rather the futility of addressing an individual that doesn’t exist anymore. In the last verses of the ten-minute discursive track, “Distortion,” Phil accepts this difficult truth of what sort of impermanent place Geneviève’s fading presence now occupies.
“I keep you breathing through my lungs /In a constant uncomfortable stream of memories trailing out / Until I am dead, too.”
The music that makes up the record most prominently features Phil’s muddily finger-picked acoustic guitar playing vague rhythms that lie beneath his stream-of-consciousness soliloquies. When an identifiable chorus that sings “People get cancer and die / People get hit by trucks and die / People just living their lives get erased for no reason” surfaces amidst the otherwise nebulous verses, its strangely whimsical melody feels almost out of place when paired with the morose subject that it underscores.
Despite its place in time being set in Elverum’s present state of grief, “Now Only” also provides a broader context into the intimate life he once held with Geneviève. In the opening track, “Tintin in Tibet,” he remembers meeting her for the first time in their early 20s, going over their careless days of debauchery in acute detail, remarking “We had finally found each other in the universe.”
And yet, the whole of the record shows us that while this ardent connection that Phil held with his wife hasn’t subsided, he begins to question the absurdity of maintaining this feeling for someone that has been reduced to nothing more than scattered ashes. The most disquieting aspect of Elverum’s lyricism is that he confronts this truth plainly, without metaphor, on songs like “Earth,” reminding himself that his wife has become “Compost and memory / There’s nothing else.”
“Now Only” doesn’t attempt to search for answers that will release Phil Elverum from the grieving that his wife’s death has instilled in his daily existence. However, the process of writing these songs to be heard by unfamiliar listeners seems to be its own sort of answer. “My grief becomes calcified, frozen in stories / And in these songs I keep singing, numbing it down,” Phil laments in “Now Only.” While he confesses his concern over the whole of Geneviève’s life being left within the confines of his own memory, Elverum’s ability to so articulately capture the impact that she has left on his life in the form of music allows for his wife’s legacy to continue on through his honest, heartfelt artistry.
To contact Music Editor Hayden Goodridge, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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