Phil Elverum, of lo-fi folk projects The Microphones and Mount Eerie, has been singing about loss for a long time. For more than two decades, Elverum has taken his beautiful surroundings of northern Washington state and steeped them in human experience, projecting his own loneliness, melancholy and sense of mortality onto the mountains, forests and streams. This beautiful abstraction of nature and humanity has garnered him a cult following, but it was always just this: an abstraction. Then, in the summer of 2016, his wife Geneviève passed away, leaving behind an infant daughter. In the wake of this horrific loss, Phil wrote A Crow Looked At Me, an album that threw away all of the mysticism and metaphor of his previous works and left behind raw, unfiltered human loss. The first track opens plainly with “Death is real”, and nothing sums up the album better. I cried the first time I listened to it. As did many others.
Now Only was released almost exactly a year after A Crow Looked At Me. If A Crow is an album about the immediacy of personal loss, Now Only is a companion record concerned with looking back on grief, reflecting upon it, and coming to terms with the cyclical nature of life and death. The knotty, anecdotal songs of Now Only stand in stark contrast with the short, mournful diary entries of its predecessor. Opener and single ‘Tintin in Tibet’ recollects days in Victoria and Tofino: eating oranges, playing empty shows and sleeping in cars. Phil finds a foil for Geneviève in Jack Kerouac’s embattled daughter on ‘Distortion’, and reflects on the solitude of his early touring days.
Phil once returns to his more experimental composition of yore with tracks ‘Now Only’ and ‘Earth’, both of which interweave subdued, meditative verses with bursts of melodic melancholy. The honey-sweet “People get cancer and die” of ‘Now Only’ can be almost jarring on first listen, but it calls back to the equally sweet and morbid chorus of an early Microphones track ‘I Can’t Believe You Actually Died’. Phil seemed happier and more contented then. Hopefully, he’s now reaching a similar peace.
The self-referential nature of Phil’s music tentatively returns here with both melodic and lyrical nods to his work on Lost Wisdom. These motifs are warped now, however, just as Phil’s re-examination of how his life interplays with that of his surroundings will forever be warped by Geneviève’s death. The remains of an animal on the peak of a mountain, or the knowing stare of a raven are laden with the weight of loss, and grappling with this is Phil’s burden to bear. Now Only is a man searching this desolate space, grasping at shards of lights among the echoes of grief.
Image: UT Connewitz via. Flickr