‘Real death’: Mount Eerie at the Melbourne Recital Centre30 January 2018
When Phil Elverum breaks into the second or third chorus of ‘Now Only’—“People get cancer and die”, all poppy and sing-song—the audience laughs. I laugh. “Why’s that funny?” he asks us; he loses his place for a few bars, humming the melody instead. But the truism sticks in my mind: people get cancer, and people die. We all know it, but it needs repeating.
The untimely death of his wife, Geneviève, has consumed all of his creative efforts since mid-2016. The subject of a heartwrenching LP last year, A Crow Looked At Me, and another upcoming, Now Only, this event is explored in a series of humble recollections, cataloguing Elverum’s memories of their lives together, and his personal grieving process. He’s almost contrite when he sings these private stories—and it does feel, in moments, like we’re watching him grieve through his bedroom window. “Telling the banal details and hoping they add up to a deeper statement” was how Elverum described his general approach on Crow to Bandcamp Daily. But like he’s always tried to persuade us, life is anything but banal.
On stage, he is a self-effacing presence. He walks alone onto the wide, three-storey-tall stage, dressed in a t-shirt and loose pants, only a guitar in his hands, his hair short, greying and unkempt. With a quick flourish of his head, he begins ‘Distortion’ in medias res: “But I don’t believe in ghosts or anything.”
Unlike efforts from his previous project, The Microphones, or Mount Eerie albums like Clear Moon or Sauna, what he means on Crow and Now Only isn’t cloaked in metaphor. Everything he says in these eulogies is clear and plain; often long, stream-of-consciousness recollections, but often short, singular descriptions of moments and emotions, immediately recognisable to those of us who have gone through something similar.
‘Tintin in Tibet’, the last song, tells the story of his first, impossibly romantic moments with his future wife: meeting her, sleeping on her floor swaddled in blankets, being awoken by her peeling an orange; sleeping in his truck and being awoken by the police, taking a ferry to Meares Island, reading the titular comic in French aloud to her on the rocky shore; the ecstasy of togetherness. “We had finally found each other in the universe,” he sings. These vignettes continue, unrelentingly, until Phil finally eulogises her: despite all her life, her accomplishments, for all his memories of them together, for all her virtues and possessions and habits, she has become nothing but molecules dancing, somewhere above Hergé’s windy Himalayas.
“It’s not for singing about/It’s not for making into art,” he sings on ‘Real Death’. As Crow’s opening track, he put this apparent contradiction front and centre. It’s inappropriate to sing about, this would seem to say; it’s disrespectful. But he does not really believe this, and the album serves as proof. With this statement, he means something broader: art must capture the bad along with the good. His work has often tried to capture the essential beauty in our surroundings and our existence, but that’s not the whole picture: terrible things happen, and death is real.
When he’s previously talked about death—on songs like ‘I Can’t Believe You Actually Died’ (Song Islands), or ‘Uh-Oh, It’s Morning Time Again’ (Singers)—he carefully skirted around its essential horror. Freud’s pleasure principle would imply we all, likewise, subconsciously avoid confronting death; because the pain and existential angst we experience is not worth what we might learn. The set he plays now, on the other hand, bears this inevitable confrontation like a figurehead on its bow.
“A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet. Elverum himself tweeted a passage of Rilke a week ago, from the latter’s ‘Requiem for a Woman’:
“And everywhere we love, we have but this:
To let each other go; since holding on
Is easy, and we don’t have to learn it first.
Are you still there? What corner are you in?”
At the end of ‘Tintin in Tibet’, Phil thanks the crowd, and walks off, leaving an empty stage backed by fairy lights. There is no encore. The lights come up before I can wipe the tears from my face. The audience, a mix of young and old, files out, muted, into the summer night.