The Pointlessness and Promise of Art After Death

Mount Eerie's second grief-stricken album in a year is about “the transition from a living person into a memory,” its creator says.

Phil Elverum and his daughter
Ingeborg Aarsand

A recent article at New Zealand’s The Spinoff compared Mount Eerie’s 2017 album, A Crow Looked at Me, to, among other things, the Holocaust poetry of Primo Levi. The headline called Mount Eerie “the saddest musician in the world,” leading Phil Elverum, who records as Mount Eerie, to tweet: “I guess I’m the saddest in the world? Yeah maybe.”

Elverum’s wife, the artist Geneviève Castrée, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four months after the birth of their only child. She died about a year later, in July 2016. Elverum, a cult-beloved folk musician best known for his work under the name The Microphones, processed his grief in song, recording in the bedroom he and Castrée shared. The resulting album was unflinching and hyper-literal, hypnotic and lo-fi, and deeply hostile to clichés about death: “I don’t want to learn anything from this,” he sang. It ended up one of the landmark albums of 2017, featuring on a number of critics’ annual lists, including my own.

A year later, he is back with a sequel, Now Only, that delves further into loss but with a slightly expanded musical and thematic scope. Whether over atonal guitars or bright patches of country pop, he asks questions about how to carry on, and about the utility of art. The word stunning is overused in record reviews, but Elverum’s intensity—the rawness of his stories, and the synaptic way he connects seemingly disparate observations—is actually immobilizing. Yet it’s not an experience of total sadness, featuring flashes of irony, hope, and love.

I spoke to Elverum on the phone a few days before Now Only’s March 16 release (the album’s streaming in full at NPR). This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: The first lines on Now Only are, “I sing to you / I sing to you, Geneviève.” They seem to imply that you’re not singing to the wider world. Why was it important to start there?

Phil Elverum: Maybe it’s because I noticed all these songs have a “you” in them. And then I started thinking about who that is, and how she doesn’t exist—or does she? That big mystery is the thesis of the record, the question I’m poking at.

I don’t have anything to say to the wider world right now, and when I do it doesn’t feel great. It doesn’t feel great to be too meta or self-referential. There are parts on the record where I am talking about the absurdity of the bigger picture of my life, about playing these songs in public. But that’s not the core of what I’m trying to get at with this body of work. It’s more of an internal thing.

Kornhaber: Those moments do stick out. Like when you’re talking about singing your “death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs” at a music festival where Skrillex is playing. Was that as absurd an experience as it sounds?

Elverum: Oh, of course. It even feels absurd to be writing or singing a song at all—in the context of actual death, being alive feels absurd. So the Skrillex moment just becomes a joke. Not a bad joke. It is good to be alive. The universe is chaotic and meaningless, and it’s good to laugh about it. That’s my stance on life, actually. Some people go through life grinding their teeth, suffering and banging their head against the wall. I’m glad that’s not the reaction that occurs in me.

Kornhaber: What did you learn from the reception of the last album?

Elverum: It was actually pretty reaffirming. I lived with Geneviève for 13 years, and before meeting her I used to be pretty open and write songs about whatever specific turmoil I was going through. But when I met her, I felt like, “No, this is different, this is too special to share with the world.” I couldn’t sing about it. We lived in this bubble of privacy. And we were very careful.

When she died, for whatever reason, that bubble popped. And I felt compelled to open up totally to the world again. It was scary to make that leap. Before playing the songs for anyone, I had literal nightmares where I’d be on stage and then somebody would come up on stage and punch me. Because they just didn’t want to hear these songs, because it was too scary for them or something.

The opposite has been the case. People are relating in a way that is so open and human. So the thing I learned from the album was that everyone is much kinder and more mature than I expected. It’s easy to have a bleak view of humanity and people’s intelligence and compassion, but opening up about this stuff improved my feeling about being alive.

Kornhaber: A Crow Looked at Me opens with you saying that death is not for making art about. But Now Only talks a lot about art giving a shape to your grief, whether it’s paintings, documentaries, or music. How do you square those things?

Elverum: I haven’t successfully squared them. But that’s what I’m exploring. The song “Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup” is digging into, like, what is art in the context of loss? What is it even for?

Even now, I’m surrounded by Geneviève’s art—she left so much that was unpublished, and one of the big projects of my life right now is physically assembling her legacy. And also here I am making more artifacts that will be left behind after I’m dead. It’s so intense to be observing the transition from a living person into a memory. Things get forgotten every day about her, and I’m watching that unfold, and I know that will happen to me. And I look back at this painter from 100 years ago and I know that it happened to him, and to every person who’s ever been alive. I feel like just an observer in my own life right now.

Kornhaber: Death is one of the great topics of art through history. Did anything about how culture has portrayed grief ring false to you once you went through it yourself?

Elverum: It all felt false. In my time of being just destroyed, I went through all my poetry books and nothing spoke to me.

No, that’s not true—there’s this one Gary Snyder poem [“Go Now”] that cracked things open for me in a really useful way. It’s written basically in the same style as A Crow Looked at Me, very graphic about the mechanics of disease and the death of his wife: the cremation, the smell, her teeth jutting out. No poetry involved. Just describing it. That opened up for me the idea of I don’t have to interpret this. I don’t have to make it pretty or find wisdom in it at all. It’s okay to just describe what happened, then leave it at that. There’s no lesson.

For the most part, most art seems cartoonish. Especially metal. I like really dark music, and all that immediately seemed like people in Halloween costumes who were singing about skeletons and had never actually experienced real loss.

Kornhaber: You do mention listening to the metal band Wolves in the Throne Room on this album, though.

Elverum: I still really like metal, and it’s reentered usefulness in my life. But there’s still something problematic about people poking around in darkness and negativity without actually participating in it. I don’t know, maybe not—people can do whatever they want.

Kornhaber: Well, these two albums are suspicious of metaphor—is that because you see a danger to metaphor?

Elverum: No, it’s just for me, personally, it wasn’t interesting to make art in that way anymore. There might be a point in my life when I return to making ambiguous and atmospheric music.

Kornhaber: There are so many moments when it’s a shock to hear you sing about a particular subject at all. Like on “Earth,” when you’re literally talking about encountering human remains in the part of your yard where you buried her ashes. Are you holding anything back?

Elverum: Hmm. Maybe none. When I was writing those words in “Earth,” about finding her chunks of bone, if anything I didn’t want it to seem gratuitous—that’s what I was worried about. I didn’t want to be perceived as veering into that realm of what I was talking about in metal, saying gory, shocking things just for the cheap impact of it. I knew for myself I wasn’t: It was real, and I was just telling the truth. I did go out in the yard, and I found her bones. It wasn’t heavy or shocking, and that’s not the point I’m trying to make in the song.

Kornhaber: At the same time, while the listener may feel they learn so much about you, they don’t hear a lot about the specifics of your relationship, for example. How much are you conscious of leaving some things out?

Elverum: When A Crow Looked at Me came out, people said a few times, “Oh, this is a beautiful tribute to Geneviève.” I didn’t like that. It’s not a tribute to Geneviève. These songs are about grieving and death and loss. If I make a tribute to Geneviève, it will be about how great she was and who she was. There are a couple parts on this record that did make an effort to describe our lives together, but the project isn’t for me to convey her as a person through song. That maybe will exist someday. These albums are purely just me exploring my own turmoil.

Kornhaber: The closest you get to really describing her is on “Distortion,” when you’re talking about watching a documentary about Jack Kerouac and thinking Geneviève looked like his daughter—who you say described her dad as a “deadbeat … taking cowardly refuge in his self-mythology.” Is that anecdote there because of the resemblance, or because of the cautionary tale of Jack Kerouac?

Elverum: Geneviève was such a unique alien that I never got reminded of her by anyone. So it was striking to see Jan Kerouac and go, “Oh, she looks like her. Oh, she’s talking like her. Oh they’re both of French Canadian decent.”

But the point of that song is shifts in memory and posterity, which is the theme of the whole album. The shift is having Jack Kerouac’s daughter crack the romance of this guy, and be like, “No, he’s just a shitty dad.”

Kornhaber: You say you don’t believe in ghosts or the afterlife on the album, but you’re also working through your desire to believe in them, right?

Elverum: That’s true: “I sing to you” and “you don’t exist.” I guess I’m just comfortable with gray area.

Kornhaber: How did you come to nonbelief?

Elverum: If anything I’m less atheistic than I used to be. I grew up without religion, but my parents have always been somewhat mystical about nature: The mountain is looking at us, stuff like that. Only in this last year did I let go of striving toward any sort of certainty about “do I believe or not believe?” I will say, out loud, words to Geneviève when I’m in the house, and it’s funny to allow myself to do that. Everything only exists in our minds anyways. The world is created by our own perception of every moment.

Kornhaber: How do you approach your job as a parent when you’re in the thick of such heavy music-making?

Elverum: I don’t think my music is that big of a deal—my entire life is parenting. The fact that I make records and go off and play shows is a small percentage of my day-to-day existence.

Sometimes people ask me, “What’s your daughter going to make of these records when she gets older?” My instinct is that it’s just not going to be that big of a deal. In 10 years it’s going to be a thing that her dad made 10 years ago, and there’s going to be 10 more years’ worth of things. She’s going to be saddled with this huge glut of art and music that both of her parents made, and she’s going to spend her whole life sorting through it. Or not. Maybe she won’t care.

Kornhaber: Was there any trepidation about doing two albums in a row in the same mode, on this same topic?

Elverum: Not at all. It wasn’t over. I had more to say still. And I didn’t want to stay in that feeling of A Crow Looked at Me. I knew the only way out of it was to continue writing songs. There wasn’t even really a gap in the production. I just kept writing.

I almost made Now Only a lot longer—there was this one song I’ve been trying to write for a long time, and I’m still chewing on that. That would be part three. Three seems like a good number to wrap up with and then do something else.

Kornhaber: So it might be a trilogy.

Elverum: Maybe, but I’m not holding too tight to that idea. I have been feeling happier lately, and more healed. I don’t think there’s going to be an end to grief. It’s a lifelong process and this loss will be with me forever. But lately I’ve been not dwelling in it so much.

Kornhaber: I saw you tweeted out a story that called you the “saddest musician in the world.” Do you claim that title or not?

Elverum: I don’t. It’s absurd. Even with A Crow Looked at Me, it’s pretty heavy stuff, but I don’t think of it as the saddest record ever made. I tried to fill it with beauty. The sadness is just a component. It’s mostly music of love and curiosity.