Now Only is a unique experience. As an elegy it is not cathartic in the slightest; it feels more like a monument to patience than to Elvrum’s late wife. As a piece of music, even, it follows no rules. It raises the question of who this album is even for, what it is trying to achieve. In centrepiece track Distortion Phil Elvrum even bluntly addresses the fact that although he sings to his dead wife, he knows that she is not listening; he hilariously mentions playing “these death songs” to kids on drugs in the desert, and afterwards leaning on Skrillex’s tour bus. The songs rarely have a focused theme but follow a stream-of-consciousness rambling. Occasionally riffs take shape and rhythms form before dissolving minutes later…
In last year’s A Crow Looked At Me, Elvrum said of death “it’s not for making art about”, and this is what I keep coming back to when I try to digest this album. At first it seems contradictory. Hasn’t Elvrum created two albums on the theme of his wife’s death in the last couple of years? I think that the answer to this is simple: he doesn’t consider these art. It’s a weird concept to me; though many might argue to the contrary, I have always thought music to be inherently artistic. Even the simplest pop requires considerate artistry. Lyrics, despite detractors, are poetry, and Dylan’s nobel prize was completely justified. Cohen could and maybe should have one. Matt Berninger’s lyrics mean more to me than anything I have come into contact with over three years studying literature. Art.
But this? I don’t know. Sometimes Elvrum’s natural poetry does shine through: in the track Now Only and in Crow, pt. 2. He rhymes. Lines have discernible metre and rhythm. Topics stick around and metaphors hit their mark. There is even humour! I’ve received a few odd looks in the last week while singing “people get cancer and die!” walking around the place – one of the strangest, funniest moments in music that I have ever come across.
For the most part, however, the album seems almost deliberately artless. In Distortion, a ten minute wall of noise and words, this is most evident. Tintin in Tibet, too. Part of this is simply Mount Eerie’s style: a tendency to shroud accessible melodies in lo-fi recordings and cluttered arrangements. Part of it, however, is unique to these two albums of death-songs. You wonder why Elvrum even writes these. You feel bad for eavesdropping on letters to the dead. But then you remember that this is just what he does; he writes songs. At this point it isn’t his art – it’s his life.
Maybe all of this seems like rambling to you. I’m still not quite sure what to make of an album like this. If you listen to it, I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy it; I’m still not quite sure that I did. But it’s brave, and it doesn’t ask you to enjoy it. It just is.