What’s more primal than singing to the dead? “I sing to you, Geneviève / I sing to you / You don’t exist / I sing to you, though”: So begins Now Only, the ninth album that Phil Elverum, the 39-year-old multi-instrumentalist, has recorded under the name Mount Eerie. Geneviève did exist, once, as Geneviève Gosselin, and then as Geneviève Castrée, an accomplished artist and musician, and finally as Geneviève Elverum, before her death in 2016, at age 35, from pancreatic cancer; she was diagnosed just four months after the couple’s only daughter was born. Death changes things for the living left behind, and though that’s an easy observation to make, it’s much harder to live with, there in the aftermath when everything’s changed.
Now Only is remarkable for many reasons, not least because it’s a sequel to 2017’s A Crow Looked at Me, a spare, beautiful album that Elverum wrote in the days immediately after Geneviève’s death. “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art,” went the opening lines of “Real Death,” the album’s first track. Like Now Only, the rest of the album was similarly devastated and lean, filled with the kind of observations that can’t be understood until you’ve experienced a death in the family. Put next to each other, what’s astonishing about both albums is how Elverum is able to make his raw grief legible.
David Byrne’s American Utopia—the legendary musician’s first solo album in 14 years—offers an expansive and ambitious contrast to Elverum’s intensely focused minimalism. “In another dimension / Like the clothes that you wear / A mighty mighty battle / Sprouting illegal hair,” he sings in the first lines of “I Dance Like This.” “A fitness consultant / In the negative zone / Wandering the city / Looking for a home.” The words are set to fat, plunky chords that lift up Byrne’s signature warble, until about 50 seconds in, when it’s clear something has gone wrong. As he reaches the chorus—”I dance like this / Because it feels so damn good / If I could dance better / Well, you know that I would”—the song shifts into a techno-futurist breakdown, something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the 1980s. While the lyrics are ambiguous enough to project any meaning onto, it’s the music that’s the real trial here. Nearly all of American Utopia is like this: Byrne has something to say, but it’s not clear that he knows what that might be.
On “Every Day Is a Miracle,” a grooving island-fusion mélange that feels as though it’s been beamed in from a rural state fair in the ’90s, Byrne theorizes about desire:
Cockroach might eat Mona Lisa
The pope don’t mean shit to a dog
And elephants don’t read newspapers
And the kiss of a chicken is hot
The brain of a chicken
And the dick of a donkey
A pig in a blanket
And that’s why you want me