Secret Meeting score: 87
by Philip Moss
In Summer 2016 the worst happened. Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, died of an aggressive cancer. They’d recently had a baby girl and planned to leave their home in Anacortes, Washington for a new life on a remote island in the Pacific. But the story he had mapped out in his mind was rerouted and since then – mostly due to the stunningly brutal record he made to document the period in which his wife became sick – his story has travelled far beyond the pages of his local press.
Less than a year after the release of A Crow Looked At Me, Elverum is back with a new record, Now Only. The question that surely everyone’s asking is, where next for Elverum? Crow was an incredibly difficult record to listen to – one you had to be in exactly the right frame of mind to endure. But Elverum has no choice. That mindset is permanent for him and songwriting is all about a state of mind; a release, a freedom, an exploration. And if he wants, or needs, to write and sing more songs that cathartically help him through the toughest experience he’s ever been through, then that’s his right.
Is Now Only a Crow part two? The simple answer is yes, and no. At just six tracks, but 44 minutes long, Now Only is in many ways a different record. Yes, within six seconds of the record’s opener, Tintin In Tibet, he mourns – ‘I sing to you, I sing to you Geneviève,’ – but this is far more than a continuation. Where Crow dealt exclusively with the period of time just before, during and after Geneviève’s death, Now Only looks back much further and with a wider angled lens. It’s the same voice that documented Crow, but in place of resentment and sorrow is a desperate attempt at resilience- ‘I recorded all these songs about the echoes in our house now, and then walked out the door to play them on a stage’. In fact, Tintin in Tibet casts a fond, reflecting eye on the initial moments when he first met his wife. ‘I picture you when we first met- you were 22’, before describing the first night they spent together – ‘we talked forever in your apartment with evening falling’. Then bluntly comes back to the present – ‘I’d rather you were in our house watching the unfolding every day life of this good daughter we made, instead of being scattered by the wind for no reason.’
At eleven minutes long the record’s lead single, Distortion, opens with a roar of guitar feedback, before a gently picked acoustic seeps through the noise – ‘I don’t believe in ghosts or anything. I know that you are gone and that I’m carrying some version of you around. Some untrustworthy old description in my memories.’ Geneviève endures. A vivid memory that he still interacts with on a daily basis. And though he may not believe in ghosts, his belief that she remains omniscient in his life is clear. But, Elverum is a realist. “The first dead body I ever saw in real life was my great grandfather’s…the second dead body I ever saw was you, Geneviève, when I watched you turn from alive to dead right here in our house.” Yes, as the song from Crow goes, ‘Death is real’.
Now, the last thing you’d have expected to hear on a Mount Eerie record at present is the most overt pop melody Elverum has ever written. But that’s exactly what the title track, Now Only, pitches up. Of course, there is a twist. He ironically delivers it through three of the grimmest lines on the record: ‘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’.
Elverum is credited as being the sole performer on the record, but Earth has the feel of a high school, math-rock band bashing away in his garage – the only difference being that the lyrics have been penned by an adult in genuine grief, not some spotty, emo teenager that wet the bed again. Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup interprets Astrup’s Midsummer Eve Bonfire – the art that shone back at Elverum when he turned on his computer after his wife’s death. Astrup had died young too, also at the peak of his creative powers – ‘Sometimes people get killed before they get to finish all the things they were going to do’.
Finally, the record ends with possibly its most beautiful moment, Crow Pt. 2– returning to the key metaphor from the last record and delving back into his daughter’s dreams where her mother ‘survives’. Crow Pt. 2 could very easily have been the title of this record. It is the continuation of a theme. Sees the return of symbols. It’s the same record, but different. A move forward in some ways, but remaining very much rooted in others.‘Everyday that comes, the echo of you living here gets quieter, obscured by the loud wind of us now wailing and moaning for you’. But despite the emphasis that life should, and can, go on, every time Elverum looks at his daughter -‘She looks as me with your eyes’- Geneviève returns.
Crow was in vast contrast to much of his previous output under the Mount Eerie and The Microphones monikers – uprooting the soundscape and musical collage style that represented so many of his previous records. Crow featured a new style of writing. One that had a pure lyrical focus, with the scratchy chords played on Geneviève’s acoustic guitar only present to serve the lyrical content. Little importance was prescribed to melody. In fact, such was the weight of his musings, that metaphorically the barren musical compositions somewhat represented his state of mind. And while this collection is again a ‘wordy’ record, many of the musical arrangements are much further developed and embellished.
Only Now is every bit as good as its predecessor, but there’s no need to judge because it’s simply a companion piece. Once again, it’s an honour to peek inside Phil’s diary- to be invited into his world and given a snapshot of the horrors he has faced, and continues to face, on a daily basis.