Most artistic reckonings with mortality either treat it as an abstract philosophical concept or document the immediate aftermath of a more specific loss. Before his 2017 album “A Crow Looked at Me,” singer-songwriter Phil Elverum, who earned indie acclaim as the Microphones before adopting the moniker Mount Eerie, had taken the former, more existential approach. Then, in 2016, Elverum’s wife, musician and artist Geneviève Castrée, died of pancreatic cancer. She had given birth to their daughter just one year prior.
The merciless forthrightness with which Elverum bared his grief on “A Crow Looked at Me” made for a brutal yet undeniably powerful and cathartic record. “Now Only” is a different kind of album about death, concerned with how absence simultaneously grows and recedes with the passage of time. The music is slightly less skeletal, with subtle drums, piano, and even some distorted electric guitar briefly supplementing Elverum’s delicate strumming and fingerpicking before receding as suddenly as they appeared. Still, the focus here remains the lyrics, which seem to flow unbidden from Elverum in long streams of hyper-detailed, confessional free verse.
On “Now Only,” Elverum reflects on his personal tragedy from every possible angle. He delves into his own past, recalling the day he first met and fell in love with Castrée in “Tintin in Tibet” and tracing the evolution of his relationship with mortality in “Distortion.” The title track documents a surreal festival experience with the diaristic world-weariness of “Benji”-era Sun Kil Moon, as Elverum wonders whether he’s keeping Castrée’s memory alive or just numbing himself to her loss as he sings “these death songs” night after night. Though he imagines his own death several times, he largely avoids the cheap comfort of self-pity, struggling instead to fight his way through the darkness — even if he’s not sure exactly what awaits him on the other side.
“Now Only” is every bit as heart-wrenching as its predecessor, but it’s not entirely devoid of hope. Art provides some refuge, allowing Elverum to feel his wife’s presence in everything from a Jack Kerouac documentary to a Nicolai Astrup painting, while their daughter keeps him tethered to reality, a living reminder of the necessary future. Yet Elverum refuses to provide an easy closure that he knows doesn’t exist, ending the record with one last haunting image: his hands outstretched, trying to grasp Castrée’s last breath, and coming up empty.