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Mount Eerie - (after) Music Album Reviews

Captured during a festival set inside a 13th-century church in the Netherlands, this live album of songs about death allows listeners to revisit their private grief.

Death is real. That is the invocation of Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me and the new (after), a live recording that captures songs from Crow and the subsequent Now Only, the exquisite LPs on which Phil Elverum documented his candid thoughts after the 2016 death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée. A crew member surreptitiously recorded Elverum’s set at the 2017 Le Guess Who? festival in the Netherlands, prompting Elverum to consider, in a new way, the mutual contemplation of solitary grief with people outside of the concert hall. A live album consisting entirely of songs about death, (after) in turn invites listeners to consider our own stories and how they might feel to a room full of strangers.

Though not religious, Elverum often plays venues that underscore his music’s spiritual imagery, which positions nature as a sort of secular take on the sublime. He even served as the recording engineer at The Unknown, a Catholic church converted into a Washington state studio. (after) finds Elverum again in a place of worship, the 13th-century gothic church, Jacobikerk, in Utrecht. With its late Medieval grandeur, the venue becomes another instrument for Elverum, his words and acoustic chords reverberating from stone walls and rib-vaulted ceilings. Though Crow and Now Only are spare records, Jacobikerk makes the versions on (after) sound hollow but full. Elverum’s voice, impossibly soft, fills the space with solemn clarity.

But the most striking thing about (after) is that, even after so many performances, these songs sound as raw as they did when Elverum first committed them to paper and tape. As on A Crow Looked at Me, “Ravens” unspools nakedly before us, elegant and heartbreaking. His uneasy phrasing transports us to the mossy place where he once grieved for Geneviève. When the song ends, you hear a pregnant pause in the room, the audience hesitating before it claps. Do you applaud someone else’s confessional grief? As the show continues, the concertgoers trade solemnity for enthusiasm, recognizing that, for tonight, they’re all in this together.

The songs of Now Only, written shortly after the release of Crow but largely unheard at the time of this November 2017 show, are particularly affecting here. They tend to be more overtly self-aware than the songs on Crow, the music more expansive. (after)’s version of “Distortion” omits the initial roar of electric guitar from Now Only, but the the song’s core is elevated. Elverum sings about how his life and travels had informed his feelings for Geneviève. “My complex intentions and aspirations do not matter at all/In the face of the crushing flow of actual time,” he sings, putting both Geneviève’s death and this strange endeavor of performing songs about her into perspective. “Now Only” itself stands out here, too, because it’s Elverum’s funniest song and the one that directly addresses his experience playing live. He takes stock of his own feelings, first questioning how anyone could experience tragedy so acute and, then, at his most darkly comedic, lists ways that people die every day—being hit by trucks, getting cancer, for no obvious reason at all. “And some people have to survive,” he reminds us. “And find a way to feel lucky to still be alive.” Otherwise sealed in wax, these songs, now living, form a new dialogue between performer and fan.

This exact dynamic is what I pondered when I saw Mount Eerie play a similar set last year in a Brooklyn synagogue. What did we hope to gain from watching Elverum play these songs? Elverum himself has asked these questions: “What is this? Is it entertainment? What is applause for? What kind of ritual is this?” he wrote about (after). When I was in college, my dad died after two years of chemotherapy and radiation. In Elverum’s performance, I heard thoughts from that experience articulated better than I’d ever managed, with an agonizing weight I’d felt but never quite put into words. His experience as he watched Geneviève “turn from alive to dead right here in our house” echoed my own. The empty rooms and fading sunsets of their home in Anacortes, Wash. afforded me a new vocabulary for considering my own grief. The effect recalled mourning at a funeral, where emotions become waves that expand and contract communally. Sobs and sniffles echoed through the room that night. As with any funeral, there was laughter, too.

Not everyone heard such concerts—or will hear (after)—the same way. I overheard conversations between concertgoers who seemed baffled by Elverum’s choice to tour these songs at all. Why would anyone choose to do this, someone asked. Others used words like “heavy” and “brutal,” as if they were at a black metal show. Even Elverum has marveled at the absurdity of it all, the choice to relive the most horrible moments of his life so many times. But listening to (after), I began to wonder about the motives of the audience: Did the individual tragedies of the attendees collectively legitimize our presence? And if so, what must one endure to pass muster?

To answer that concert-goer: Who knows, really, why Elverum decided to share these songs with us? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there was an audience to bear witness. When that crowd claps on (after), there’s a tenderness to the applause, a gratitude you can hear coming back at Elverum as he finishes each song. You can hear it even if you didn’t see the tour, even if you’re just listening to (after) on headphones as you walk in the rain. It’s the sound of hundreds of people thanking this man for sharing his story, because in it they see parts of their own. Or they know that his grief may someday become a blueprint for navigating theirs.

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