When Phil Elverum’s wife of 13 years, Geneviève Castrée, passed away in July 2016, he responded by penning a series of songs that became Mount Eerie’s 2017 album A Crow Looked At Me. Where that record examined the short-term impact of death, Elverum’s new album Now Only explores how to live in the months and years that follow. The time since, A Crow has been marked by artistic highs for Elverum—he returned to live performance for the first time since 2014, and the record was met with widespread acclaim. But it also, understandably, was colored by emotional lows. Now Only paints a picture of a man navigating that divide.
About halfway through Now Only’s title track, he describes performing “these death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs” at a music festival, talking with fellow artists about songwriting, before noting that “to be alive felt so absurd.” Then comes the track’s gently melodic chorus, which begins, “People get cancer and die.” As that line indicates, Now Only makes much use of surprise—emotional transitions happen quickly, as the dark wash of guitar on “Tintin in Tibet” makes way for a fingerpicked passage, above which Elverum recounts early romance with Castrée. Now Only’s unpredictability feels like a mirror of Elverum’s internal disorientation, finding reminders of his wife in unlikely places—while traveling, playing in his yard, making his daughter breakfast. On “Distortion,” he wonders, “Is it my job now to hold whatever’s left of you for all time?” Elverum is too honest on Now Only to offer an answer to that question, but as “Distortion” nears its conclusion, he offers something softer and warmer: “In his tears right now,” he sings, “light gleams.”