You’d be hard-pressed to find a more painful listen than Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. That album, released last March, saw Phil Elverum staring down the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée, with an unblinking, documentarian eye. Elverum’s songwriting felt hollowed-out by grief, with songs like “Real Death” recognizing their own futility in the face of overwhelming tragedy. “When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb,” Elverum sang.
But still he delivered 11 tracks of sparse, agonized poetry, the details of his life with Castrée placed in sharp relief next to the emptiness of his life without her. And still, somehow, he arrived in a place of fleeting beauty, an anecdote of Elverum and his daughter having a brief, transcendent moment while walking in the woods. It provided, if not quite hope, a small moment of relief from crushing existential despair.
Picking up a year later, Now Only is an essential continuation of Crow’s portrait of loss, following Elverum as he adjusts to grief becoming a constant part of his life. If Crow assessed the shock of death and its immediate aftermath, Now Only shows how inescapable pain can become mundane over time. “I’m sobbing and eating eggs again,” Elverum sings on the final track, “Crow, Pt. 2.” It’s grief as routine — but that doesn’t make it any easier. In fact, Now Only is, in some ways, just as punishing as its predecessor.
The album is built around the empty space where Castrée used to exist. Every song is directed at her, or the memory of her, as a way for Elverum to channel his grief. He doesn’t “believe in ghosts or anything,” he sings on “Distortion.” He knows she can’t hear him. But there’s something comforting in addressing the absence directly.
Opening track “Tintin in Tibet” deals mostly in memories, vignettes of meeting Castrée and the beginning of their relationship. It’s the entire plot of a romantic comedy boiled down to under five minutes, with all of that genre’s unwavering belief in meant-to-be happy endings. “We had finally found each other in the universe,” Elverum sings—and then that happiness and certainty is stripped away, 13 years later, by her death. The sadness hits like an anvil.
There are small shocks like this throughout Now Only. The song “Earth” sees Elverum and his daughter playing in his yard near where Castrée’s ashes are scattered—and then he describes, with some disbelief, finding “actual chunks” of her bones, “bleached and weathered, unerasable.” Is he looking at a piece of her finger, he wonders, or her skull?
That’s an unimaginable situation for most of us—as painfully concrete as a reminder of death can get. But the song eventually finds a sort of strange peace in the process of decay, courtesy, strangely enough, of a Wolves in the Throne Room lyric: “I will lay down my bones among the rocks and roots.” As on A Crow Looked at Me, Elverum finds solace in nature and its processes—it’s the only ordering force amid the world’s dark, meaningless chaos.
The album gives us a few moments of relief, too, in the form of some pitch-black comedy. The title track turns the cruel absurdity of death into something that’s actually pretty catchy. “People get cancer and die,” Elverum sings over an incongruously upbeat melody. “People get hit by trucks and die / People just living their lives / Get erased for no reason.” It’s the kind of chorus you could imagine audiences singing along with, if they can just forget about the sentiment at the center of it.
And that’s the inherent irony of Now Only—the fact that Elverum has spent the past year touring behind an album of intense personal tragedy and extreme existential dread. At one point later in that song, Elverum is hanging out with Weyes Blood and Father John Misty at a music festival in Arizona “that had paid to fly me in / To play death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs.”
It’s an inherently absurd situation—and as comical as an album about death can get—but that line also serves as a reminder of just how much Mount Eerie’s current output sticks out in the current musical landscape. Sure, Father John Misty sings about humanity’s deep-seated, incurable flaws—but it’s infused with plenty of levity and the occasional reassurance that “each other’s all we’ve got.”
But Elverum’s dealing with a much more immediate, unshakeable bleakness on his recent albums. This is music that looks at the part of life most people actively try to avoid. It’s a realm usually only explored by metal—thus, Wolves in the Throne Room—and even then, there’s usually a cartoonish, hyperbolic remove. Elverum’s plainspoken poetry has none of that distance. You live in his grief when you listen to Now Only, and it’s (obviously) not a pleasant place to be. This isn’t an album that you’re really meant to enjoy.
There is a comfort to be found, though, in Elverum’s tenacity, in his ability to shape his loss into something beautiful. He doesn’t undermine or sugarcoat his devastation. There isn’t any forced catharsis or moral takeaway. But there is something comforting, something deeply human, about putting on the record and sharing in his grief. Elverum doesn’t have to overtly remind us that each other’s all we’ve got—the experience of listening and empathizing with his sorrow makes that point for him.