Using music in heavily cathartic, self-healing ways is no new concept for Phil Elverum, but his 2017 release A Crow Looked at Me took this part of him to the next level. It didn’t hold back from delving into every crushing detail of the death of his wife and its detriment on his emotional health. This level of honesty is something I almost expect to hear more in art, where pain seems like such a common thing to reference. But artists still tend to dance around the topic or water down their pain since it’s considered private to so many people and that level of vulnerability is unnerving. But delivering the facts about dealing with something as life-shattering as this is a rarely genuine moment and comes across as more relatable than the artist might expect, thus making a project like this one to pay close attention to.
While A Crow Looked at Me documented his fresh reactions to her death, Now Only delves into all of the memories that continue to come back time and time again as he attempts to start a new life without her. It follows the grieving process by displaying the outskirts of how events like this can haunt your life even years after they occur. It may not be sonically life-changing, but attacking its instrumental predictability seems counterproductive when he isn’t trying to change the face of music or anything doesn’t seem logical. Phil Everum’s intention was clearly to make a personal singer-songwriter album with a strong narrative element to help him through an emotionally harrowing part of his life, which he achieves without a doubt.
The record jumps into the magic of being a young adult falling in love without limits or boundaries, full-heartedly believing you found the person that makes all of your past heartbreak worth it in Tintin and Tibet. He expresses feeling uncertain about the future and lost in the world, but believes it doesn’t matter because she is too, and they have each other. A majority of the time, the people involved know deep down that it’s insane and foolish and unrealistic, but soaking in the moment where life isn’t disappointing them for once is the only thing that feels natural. Recollection of what would happen down the line serves as a reminder of fate’s terrifying control over our lives.
Distortion takes us through a set of flashbacks; its long-winded, rambly nature might remind you of recent material from Mark Kozelek or Father John Misty, but each story carries significance and doesn’t stray from the topic at hand. He first recalls a time when he was 23 and independence defined him, his focus on his work serving as a rebellion against the unpredictable tendencies of the universe. The irony looking back on how he felt for a time that life couldn’t touch him when it would break him apart years later is sobering and forces listeners to acknowledge that we’re all vulnerable to the ways of the world to some extent.
Phil’s respect for his wife is abundantly clear in a moment like the description of a movie he watched on a flight about a lineage of bad daughters who had to grow up with parents unsuited to raise them. It reminded him that Geneviève dealt with similar trauma, and lines like “And she had black hair and freckles and pale skin just like you / And she told the hard truth and slayed the gods just like you” show his undying appreciation for her character and strength during her time alive. The separate stories combined into the same song follow the random, uncontrollable nature of Phil’s constant recollections of their life together and make it one of the project’s most heart wrenching cuts.
Now Only sheds light on how utterly isolated Phil feels in his devastation through a few images. In scenes where he glances around a hospital room where people have grim looks and clear signs of dealing with similar tragedies, he still can’t help but believe his pain is unique. He then performs at festivals where he describes “teenagers on drugs” in the audience aren’t absorbing any of his words. Being around so many other people in a completely different headspace makes his suffering even worse, and you can sense this desolation in lines like “This is what my life feels like now / Like I got abruptly dropped off by the side of the road in the middle of a long horrible ride / In a hot van that was too full of confident chattering dudes and the sound of tires receding / Taking in the night air I say "Now only".
Earth mostly serves as a sonic change of pace in the record; its crashing distortion transitions into moody guitars that softly fade into ambience and give some variety that I wish manifested itself a bit more in other songs. Its tedious length reveals that it’s slightly underwritten, but nevertheless, moments like the car ride home after Geneviève’s burial where Phil had nothing but her ashes and necklace as comfort makes his despair feel uncomfortably real. This transition from human being with an active role in your daily life to nothing more than a memory is illustrated in Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup. His future plans were built alongside her, and now that he’s being forced to move forward without her, nothing feels right. He imagines what new focus he could possibly form and struggles to imagine when his life won’t be centered around her death.
Crow Pt. 2 closes the album out; Phil talks about what it’s like raising his daughter with the genes of this woman he was so in love with. They share in their pain, but knowing that part of this girl still exists inside her makes him ache. Seeing her grow up without her rekindles all of these memories of her life and what could’ve been his reality had this tragedy not happened. But the most time goes by, the more her face disappears from his memory, and everything he experiences seems much emptier. Phil’s willingness to turn this crushing desolation into an intricate, thought-provoking project that follows these recollections is nothing short of admirable. It showcases the brutal realities of the world may not be comfortable, but it’s a conversation that’s essential to have to acknowledge that our time on earth is limited… and the compelling singer-songwriter album that 2018 needed.