‘A Crow Looked at Me’ is not an album that seemed begging for a sequel. Its own existence was crushing and unexpected, just months after the passing of Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève. “Death is real,” Elverum sang in its first seconds, ruminating on those three words for forty minutes of raw poetry. The songs were clear and metaphor free. There was no distance between the listener and Elverum’s grief. It was a masterpiece so intimate and specific in its painting of loss that you wished it did not exist.
But death is real. Elverum goes on living in the blast zone, as he puts it, raising a young daughter on his own, and writing songs about his dead wife. The songs remain stream-of-consciousness pieces about her passing, with the matter-of-fact minutia of Sun Kil Moon’s ‘Benji’. Many of them reflect on events of ‘Crow’; on ‘Earth’, he revisits the ashes that were left facing the sunset a year ago to find that they are indistinguishable from the animal bone surrounding them.
Yet ‘Now Only’ is not just a continuation of the previous album. Elverum expands the scope of his lyrics to match the distance time has made between him and his wife. He contemplates the distortion of memory and the purpose of art while he gets paid to tour painful elegies. The instrumentation expands with these thoughts. Again on ‘Earth’, thrashing guitar matches sudden waves of anger, that mellow into fingerpicked acoustic and ghostly ambience.
There is subtle craft to the stunning turns of phrase, the sequencing of verses and surprising shifts in mood. Elverum has prolonged his wife’s echo with a universal collection of songs, powerful as any literature on the human experience.