Phil Elverum has never been afraid to evolve.
Changing his moniker from the Microphones to Mount Eerie signified a thematic return to Elverum's Pacific Northwest roots—the name references the mountain near Elverum's birthplace of Anacortes, Wash., where he now lives once again—and saw his songwriting become more personal in nature. On the heels of this change, and in a turn of tragic irony, Elverum was forced to deal with an almost unimaginable tragedy when cancer took his wife, musician and illustrator Geneviève Castrée, in 2016, mere months after the couple's first child was born.
This lightning bolt of suffering and grief became a line of demarcation in Elverum's life and art. Every song he has written since her death has explored his attempts to traverse the ocean of loss he suddenly found himself in. Elverum's exploration of these melancholic themes has birthed two records so frank, personal and devastatingly beautiful that they have a literary analog in Joan Didion's Pulitzer-winning exploration of a similar loss, The Year of Magical Thinking.
Ahead of Elverum's upcoming Portland show behind the newly released Now Only, we took a deep dive into the songwriter's extensive catalog and picked some of our favorite cuts.
"The Moon" (The Glow Pt. 2)
Before the loss of his wife and the sea change in his musical output, Phil Elverum was best known for his 2001 masterpiece, The Glow Pt. 2. "The Moon" sees the songwriter revisiting the landmarks of a failed relationship that inspired much of the record, singing, "I went back to feel alone there," over a propulsive, horn-filled arrangement that guides his nighttime trip through a failed romance of the past.
"IV. Mount Eerie" (Mount Eerie)
Elverum's fourth and final album as the Microphones was perhaps his most ambitious, featuring a storyline that sees Elverum die, get eaten by vultures and ascend into the cosmos. The record also harks back to his highly collaborative early K Records days and features cameos by Kyle Field of Little Wings, Karl Blau and label head Calvin Johnson, all of whom appear on this epic track.
"Crow, Pt. 2" (Now Only)
It's difficult to pick "favorites" from the two albums since Elverum's wife's death, as each record is a sort of musical memoir of grieving so personal and stricken they exist on a plane beyond critical assessment. But when Elverum describes his young daughter's amazement at hearing her deceased mother's voice coming from a record on "Crow, Pt. 2," a beautiful break in the clouds of the grief enveloping Elverum appears, illuminating for the listener why he refuses to succumb to the darkness he sees all around him.
"The Glow Pt. 2" (The Glow Pt. 2)
One of the facets that made The Glow Pt. 2 such a memorable affair is the seemingly disparate musical elements Elverum could successfully combine. This is rarely more apparent than on the record's title track, a striking number filled with unexpected musical twists and turns and plenty of Elverum's lyrical flair for the dramatic.
"Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup" (Now Only)
In which Elverum relates himself and his grief to two paintings by Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup, Midsummer Eve Bonfire and Foxgloves, and does so to devastating effect. In the former, Elverum sees himself in a lonely-seeming pregnant woman standing apart from the jovial bonfire gathering before her; and in the latter, Elverum wonders about the significance of the foxgloves, the first flowers to bloom after an area has been logged, fortuitously growing at the site of the house he and his daughter are moving into.
"Real Death" (A Crow Looked at Me)
A Crow Looked at Me's opening track announces the devastating change in both Elverum's life and art with a sparse, grief-stricken stream-of-consciousness singing style that lets the haunting frankness of Elverum's words take center stage. The stunning song is made all the more memorable by the musical arrangement, which recalls a slowly clicking life-support system.
"I Want Wind to Blow" (The Glow Pt. 2)
The opening track on the Microphones' third record paints a picture of a man who's found solace in admitting defeat. His relationship over, Elverum allows himself to be swept away by his despondency, and even looks forward to it. "There's no hope for me/I've been set free," he sings, sadly and comfortably resigned to his fate.
"The Place I Live" (Clear Moon)
Around 2010, Phil Elverum took an extended break from touring, decamped to a deconsecrated church in the Washington woods and emerged with two albums, the first being the lush and expansive Clear Moon. "The Place I Live" stands out for both its male and female call-and-response vocal turns and a gorgeous arrangement so indebted to composer Angelo Badalamenti's work on Twin Peaks that one can almost picture Laura Palmer materializing out of the mist in the Washington woods during the recording and sadly placing her head on Elverum's shoulder.
"Through the Trees Pt. 2" (Clear Moon)
If you wanted to give a new listener a taste of Phil Elverum's lyrical style, one would be hard pressed to find a better example than "Through the Trees Pt. 2." It's all here: nature, life and death, ruminations on the inherent pointlessness of existence—there's even a "Pt. 2" thrown in there. It's a gorgeous, philosophical number that features what could be a mission statement for Elverum's work, if not his own self-written eulogy: "I meant all my songs/Not as a picture of the woods/But as a reminder to myself/That I briefly lived."
SEE IT: Mount Eerie plays Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St., with Black Belt Eagle Scout, on Thursday, March 29. 9 pm. $18 advance, $20 day of show. All ages. Get tickets here.