What are the stages of grief that come after the classic five, after the “acceptance” of a death-warped reality? Perhaps psychotherapists have terms for them, but the culture as a whole is scant on language for those slower-unwinding ordeals. With average life spans continuing to stretch out, though unevenly and without fairness, more individuals are going to spend more days and years in the long aftermaths of accumulated losses. We could use lessons in what to anticipate. In a way, such an education is what the Anacortes, Washington, musician Phil Elverum has been providing with his two latest albums—last year’s acclaimed A Crow Looked at Me and his new Now Only—but without any of the condescending instruction of self-help.
Elverum has been making independent folk-rockish records since the mid-1990s, first as the Microphones, then since 2003 as Mount Eerie. His music has always been fairly subdued yet intense and solipsistic, with a kind of American transcendentalist aesthetic (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman) combined with a distinctly Pacific Northwest naturalist mysticism: songs full of moon, ocean, mountains. In 2016, Elverum lost his wife, the gifted French Canadian artist Geneviève Castrée, to pancreatic cancer at barely 35, diagnosed just the year before. He was left with their infant daughter, their rural home, the night sky, importuning memories, and a gaping chasm.
On Crow, he narrated his day-to-day passage through that state, the lurching tears, the awkward silences on trips into town, the ontological questions, the scattering of ashes, the apologetic redistribution of clothing he couldn’t bear to keep in the house. The scenes came in stutters and undammed streams over mostly bare acoustic guitar. “Death is real,” it began. “Someone’s there and then they’re not. And it’s not for singing about. It’s not for making into art.”
Given that the album was made nonetheless, that statement of principle would be honored mostly in the breach, as in a sense it always is. If death weren’t real, would humans need to make anything into art? But it also announced, or warned, that this music was not going to be conspicuously artful. His lines were less formal lyrics than observational prose poems, and the songs less conventional tunes than tentative melodic shapes. Rather than the ritual mourning music of tributes, dirges, or funereal lamentations (not that people couldn’t use more of those as well), this was music as documentary, as memoir. Along with Björk’s time-lapse heartbreak soundtrack Vulnicura, the contemporary work it most resembled was perhaps Joan Didion’s equally stark The Year of Magical Thinking, her book about the sudden, world-unmooring death of her husband—I was going to describe it and Crow as “unflinching,” but in fact they’re all raw, uncontrollable flinching, and that is what they’re unflinching about.
Elverum, who’d relied on symbolism before and sometimes portentously so, had discovered that some truths of existence can be represented only without metaphor or allegory. It’s a revelation artists have had before him, for instance the poet Marie Howe, whose style was stripped down and retooled for her 1997 book about her younger brother John’s death of AIDS, What the Living Do. Its title poem, littered with Drano, torn grocery bags, too-bright winter sun, and unanswerable yearnings, has become a much-anthologized touchstone. On the second track of the new album, “Distortion,” Elverum explicitly points to this transformation of method, recalling the first dead body he ever saw, his great-grandfather’s embalmed shell at his funeral, where Elverum couldn’t grasp the symbolism in the Bible passage he was cajoled to read, but “that dead body spoke to me, clear and metaphor-free.” (Several verses later, he adds that “the second dead body I ever saw was you, Geneviève, when I watched you turn from alive to dead right here in our house.”)
A Crow Looked at Me seemed singular in essence. On its release, I listened to it twice, with great admiration but excruciating difficulty, too, and the last thing I would have thought was, “Please, do another one of these.” It was hard enough to make myself play it again this week to prepare for the sequel. But it turned out that it was easier to appreciate in revisiting for the grace of its music and poetry, instead of the secondhand torment. I had adjusted to the idea. Now Only benefits from the fact that, in a sense, Elverum has adjusted, too, which is part of the story post-acceptance, though never without spasms of anger and absurdity and helplessness. Now Only is an album I can imagine returning to more often, even as its title, in such a different register from the first, cautions that this is still a first-draft report from the front, still radically subject to revision. It even makes me look forward to another chapter in the near future.
While it has the same general homely, ruminative sound, dominated by early Leonard Cohen–like acoustic fingerpicking, it’s more expansive—its six songs average seven minutes each, compared to Crow’s 11 averaging less than four minutes—and it varies much more in music and mood. Phil and Geneviève’s love story is a larger presence, and so is their daughter’s growing personality, as well as chapters from his life before the relationship. There are snatches of bouncy country-rock, drone metal, bright piano, and more generous harmonies. As it will, the world begins to reassert itself. So, too, does forgetfulness, that awful paradox for survivors, both salve and scourge, as when the midpoint track “Earth” opens over crunchy rock chords with the statement, “I don’t want to live with this feeling any longer than I have to/ But also I don’t want you to be gone.”
It’s still a harrowing listen. There is a terrible moment in “Earth” when Elverum finds that he didn’t bury Geneviève’s ashes deep enough in their garden the previous year, and fragments of bone begin resurfacing in “the spring upheaving.” He’s left to ask whether that shard was part of the finger that not long ago touched him or another of the skull that housed her fertile imagination. But even here he finds himself unwillingly comforted by the idea that her body is gradually returning to landscape, and that his own someday will, too: “Compost and memory, there’s nothing else.”
Yet there are also a few jokes. Naturally of the dark kind, but there’s certainly nothing on Crow—where a household object like a toothbrush can become an instrument of mental torture—like the title track, “Now Only,” in which Elverum makes fun of his past self for looking around at the people with him in a hospital waiting room (before Geneviève’s death), who hold bereavement-related books like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and thinking, “No, my devastation is unique.” The song then breaks into a twangy, major-chord, upbeat chorus, proclaiming chirpily, “But people get cancer and die/ People get hit by trucks and die/ People just living their lives/ Get erased for no reason/ With the rest of us watching from the side.” It’s bitterly funny, but if you can handle the guilt pangs, it’s funny nonetheless. Gallows humor: It’s one of those stages left out of the original Kübler-Ross model.
Besides the passage of time, what’s changed here is a relationship to a kind of original sin, which is that Elverum made the first album. For such a prolific creator, writing songs is obviously part of how he feels compelled to process his life. Even when feeling solitary in his pain, he must have intuited that others would empathize, or he would have left Crow as a basement tape. Still, how listeners responded was a secondary concern. Instead, it became his most successful album in more than a decade. So here he’s remembered us, and that’s partly because he’s ended up singing those songs on stages—a topic that comes up several times on Now Only, on which the title is also a joke about a marquee billing, as in, “Tonight Only, Mount Eerie!” In the title track, he sings with the deepest ambivalence about having been hired by a music festival to stand in the desert and sing his “death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs” while Skrillex is trafficking in bass drops somewhere afield. Elverum indicts himself for having fun the night before talking craft with a bunch of other singer-songwriters and wonders if he’s just commodifying his grief for profit now: “You are gone, and then your echo is gone, and then the crying is gone, and what is left but this merchandise?” In another mode, on “Distortion,” he asks, “Is it my job now to hold whatever’s left of you for all time/ And to re-enact you for our daughter’s life?” But this is the job that, in his misery when he made Crow, he conscripted himself into. How can he be satisfied by singing purely about light on water ever again?
One of the most moving moments in Now Only comes in the final song, “Crow, Pt. 2,” when Elverum is scrambling to get his daughter dressed and give her breakfast, to have a normal surviving day, then goes to put on music, and the little girl asks him to play “Mama’s record.” Then, he reconstructs, “She’s staring at the speaker with this look of recognition/ Putting it together that it’s you singing/ I’m sobbing and eating eggs again.”
This problem, shared by both Phil and Geneviève in a way (one of the hardships he outlines here is that he has to go through her sketches and notebooks, to curate the work that will live after her), is both a burden and a privilege. Theirs are not lives that will go unrecorded, after being gunned down in the street, after having their fixes mixed with fentanyl, after just being decent people with regular jobs whose kids try to remember stories they probably never asked about enough to pass down through generations. (How many of us can name all of our great-grandparents?) Elverum sings here about reaching his first understanding of death as a child, how it made him want to have an impact that would perpetuate his memory, and how that guided his choices. Thankfully he also remembers his mother laughing at him as “this kid trying to wriggle his way out of mortality/ Of the final, inescapable, feral scream.”
I was that kid, too. Now, I know I won’t wriggle out, but I still fantasize. And I’ve lost people who I wish had been granted that all-access pass. But in each case, there was someone closer to those lost, who I saw go through the temporary madness of mourning, for weeks or months or years. I wept for them but was frightened, too, by my mother’s sudden panic in the grocery aisle a few days after my father’s death, fleeing into the parking lot, leaving me to complete our required list for the wake. It took a while, but she has moved on to a renewed and fulfilling life, as I strongly suspect Phil Elverum will in time.
I also think about how much unjust death there’s been in hip-hop, year by year, or in the working-class ranks of early rock ’n’ roll. Fans of “alternative” genres mostly confront the reaper’s scythe retrospectively, tracing back the scars it left in songs before the fact of an overdose, a suicide, some emotional self-destruction. Not as real-time narrative. As one of the selected bohemian few, Mount Eerie is using the voice he has, protected by artistic status, by available land, by the privilege to conceptualize the universe speaking to and for him, to chronicle an agony, arrived too soon, that most mortals confront at least once but most again and again in the course of our forgettable lives. But still, if he can do it with this much fidelity, I will keep listening yearly to this serial drama of an existential crime, for as long as he wants to unscroll it.