A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum's tender tribute to his late wife spares the listener nothing, and both the audience and his art are better for it.
April 13, 2017 | by Jocelyn Hoppa
A Crow Looked at Me
P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2017
In November of 2015, Geneviève Castrèe had just put out Maman Sauvage, a book of poems in French. Another release that year was the birth of a baby daughter with her husband, Phil Elverum, who records as Mount Eerie. But shortly after, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the family’s lives quickly turned from birth and hope, to the realities of an aggressive, fatal form of an already life-altering disease. The couple mostly kept the news private, until Elverum created a GoFundMe campaign for financial support for chemo treatments resulting in mounting medical bills. One month later, on July 9, 2016, she died.
Two months after her passing, Elverum started writing and recording music in the room where she spent her last days. He used her instruments down to the guitar pick, as well as her paper, staring out the same window she did.
In his words: Why share this much? Why open up like this? Why tell you, stranger, about these personal moments, the devastation and the hanging love? …. I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known.
What resulted is Elverum’s ninth Mount Eerie record, A Crow Looked at Me, which often plays out in one-sided conversations with the ghost of his wife — what it was like in the final days or watching her die, to disperse the ashes (he explains he doesn’t look at them as if they were her) and live in a haunted house with only lifeless pictures on the fridge and visions in his dreams.
The album begins with the confrontational “Real Death,” where in the first line he qualifies plainly, clearly how someone is there and then they’re not. “It’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art.”
As the album continues on, the listener is confronted with a number of stark, honest thoughts about watching someone you love die and what happens afterwards:
From “Seaweed”: “What about foxgloves? Is that a flower you liked? I can’t remember, you did most of my remembering for me. And now stand untethered in a field full of wild foxgloves, wondering if you’re there, or if a flower means anything. And what could anything mean in this crushing absurdity.”
“Forest Fire” is even more plainspoken, to crushing effect: “But when I’m kneeling in the heat throwing out your underwear, the devastation is not natural or good, you do belong here. I reject nature. I disagree.”
“Swims” spares no detail from the death scene itself: “I can’t get the image out of my head, of when I held you right there and watched you die. Upstairs in the back bedroom of our house where we’ve lived for many years. Your last gasping breaths, I see it again and again, as the breeze blew in.”
And finally, perhaps most cathartically, on “Emptiness, Pt. 2,” Elverum sings over the record’s most effective, tender guitar riff, “Her absence is a scream.” The song goes on to conclude grimly, “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about before I knew my way around these hospitals.” This is particularly striking from a musician who has dealt in conceptual emptiness quite a bit on his records. And one has to wonder how such a realization will change his art going forward.
That being said, this still is very much a Mount Eerie record. The same despair and enigma are here, in the sounds, in what Elverum says. A simple beat or piano inflection is all that’s needed to carry his gentle, spare guitar strums. His hushed voice still sounds like it was recorded in an empty room, as it does on previous recordings, this time it provides an even eerier effect. Where the lyrical delivery on earlier albums in his discography (Dawn, Black Wooden, Wind’s Poem) are more abstract, swimming around in more fuzz, distortion, noise — sometimes even downright black metal territory — they are always delivered with a sedate, nearly spoken tenderness, always meditative as they are here.
Some records are meant for artful abstraction (or distraction), and some are meant for grace and remembrance. A Crow Looked at Me falls into this latter category. This may not be the first album I turn to in Mount Eerie’s catalog as it’s difficult to tell what kind of setting would warrant an un-casual listen, but I get the feeling I will turn to it. Just as I have with other autobiographical albums centered on death: Sufjan’s Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell or Cindy Lee Berryhill’s latest release The Adventurist, or merely wildly depressing albums like Will Oldham’s Death to Everyone and Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, not to mention Elverum’s own The Glow Pt. 2, by his other, previous band the Microphones.
I personally allow for death to be a part of my life, and to be sad and isolated when sadness and isolation are all I can or want to see. A space reserved for my lost ones: for my grandmother and the surrealness of watching her take her last breath, to a dear friend who OD’d and died on New Year’s Eve. To the people I love still here in the present, the unknowns of time and death puts that all into perspective too.
In all of this, in listening, it’s possible to experience a little bit of the echoing “love and infinity beneath all of this obliteration” Elverum successfully achieves with this heartfelt, heartbreaking album.