Death is everywhere. You can glance in any direction and see wood, meat and plants that were once living things. For Phil Elverum, the singer/songwriter recording under the moniker of Mount Eerie, he sees the ashes of his wife, Genevieve Castree, the recently deceased mother to his young daughter. Countless forms of poetry, music, and literature have addressed and expounded upon the topic of death; sometimes it is manipulative, and other times its plaintive art, desperately trying to make sense of life’s preposterous and pervasive cruelty. A heft of this artwork has proven to be very worthwhile, yet little to none of it can precisely convey the true, emptiness real death, and the impactfulness of rolling over to that side of the bed in the middle of the night that formerly radiated human warmth. Enter, Phil and God bless him. His new record is titled A Crow Looked At Me and for some it will be the saddest listen they might ever endure but for Phil, this is the painfully fresh document of an event that has changed his life forever.
Dating back to the 90’s with the essential, experimental indie-rock band, The Microphones, Phil has dabbled in the topic of death, as well as themes of life and nature. As a fairly recent convert to his music and idiosyncratic style, I can’t claim to be a historian on his work and personal life, but it is rather apparent he is hermetic, introverted and throughout his career has been gushing with creativity. A Crow Looked At Me documents where creativity and comfort meet harsh reality. This is where art becomes meaningless and ephemeral, and isn’t it ironic- To make an album, a piece of art, about how art doesn’t help. The emotions that music can evoke are fleeting and the sting of real life depression and loss lingers long after a record is recorded.
A Crow Looked At Me is truly unlike any album on the subject. The music, like other Mount Eerie recordings, is very bare, mostly consisting of acoustic guitar, piano, tiny sputtering drum machines and Phil’s voice graphically detailing the time, place, and naturalistic imagery surrounding his wife’s passing. Every line in every song brings another layer of uncomfortable visuals. Unlike the frightening mix of acceptance and distress featured on David Bowie’s Blackstar or the triumphant, harrowing memoirs detailed on Touche Amore’s record Stage Four, this album hasn’t come to terms with anything. It’s very fresh and present, often sounding like it was written hours, maybe minutes after Genevieve’s passing. I would be very wary to recommend this album to anyone dealing with grief because takes place so early in the grief cycle. The emotions and so raw, stark, and the lyrics are blunt, longing and quietly tortured while brimming with detail. In fact, the entire album was recorded in the very room Genevieve died in, carrying with it the crackles, hums, and natural sounds of being isolated in an empty room with just an acoustic guitar.
The honesty on this album is devastating, with each line rolling out of Phil’s mouth gently as tears flowing down your face. The intense levels of pain and numbness that Phil guides the listener into makes this one of the most arduous albums I’ve experienced in recent memory, which is also what makes it so incredibly genius. The way Phil forces you into his world is unshakeable, making it a work that many might respect, but will undoubtedly be reluctant to return to. This is a wholly uninviting listen, even more, unnerving considering how crystal clear Phil’s words are. He demands your attention to notice the inevitable desolation of death.
In my lifetime, I’ve experienced two major deaths. They happened simultaneously in a car accident. It shook my entire community and shifted my perspective on life. That was roughly seven years ago. At the time, I was writing songs often. The death of my friends was not a muse I kind of intended it could be. When I went to reach a pen to attribute meaning to the tragedy, my hands went limp. There was nothing adequate I could say, I just really missed them, and I still do. On “Emptiness, Pt. 2,” Phil recites one of my favourite lyrics: “conceptual emptiness is cool to talk about before I knew my way around these hospitals”. He’s right. Death, afterlife, and the idea of nothingness is idle talk until it personally makes its presence known to you. “Death is real” is the opening line of the album and repeated motif throughout. Such a universally accepted statement, yet so easily forgotten.
A Crow Looked At Me strings together beautiful moments, despite its unnervingly bare instrumentation. The haunting guitar melody on “Ravens” is one of the most mesmeric and unsettling moments put to music. When Phil cleans his wife’s room for the final time in “Toothbrush/Trash” its haunting music picks up slightly with a soft drum machine matching the tempo of his descriptions at the end. “Soria Moria” gathers in the only audible electric guitar in the album as Phil tells the origin story of their relationship; using this guitar, he matches its brash distortion with his frantic emotional state. These spare, human moments feel so tangible in spite of its narrative is told in such hollow spaces; fleshed out through memories, dreams and naturalistic imagery. Ravens, flies and dirt play the role of life always flourishing, despite the unimaginable defeat that it faces and ultimately overcomes. At one point Phil sees a fly as his wife before he lets it out of a window to be set free. While scattering her ashes into a sunset he declares she is not the ashes, she is the sunset.
The final track, “Crow,” makes a point to audibly have Phil leave the room after his final lines. There is no catharsis, no reprise and little to demand an immediate return. Death is sound, the crows are sound, and the nightmares are corporeal until the moment of awakening, and this is Phil Elverum’s reality. Few pieces of art have used death in such a genuine fashion as this has. Death is not for singing or inspiring. It is a callous, unreasonable and inequitable fact of life that doesn’t make much sense; Phil makes this painfully evident on every lyric he delivers. The suffering of cleaning up the remains of a once living person and having to continue with the daily minutiae of life is a burden inflicted by nature’s cruelty. A burden that Phil repudiates on the remarkable “Forest Fire”. Phil, who has always held nature in particularly high regard, now seeing his lifelong fascination and respect for these forests turned on its side as he quietly disagrees with Genevieve’s fate.
“You do belong here, I reject nature, I disagree”
This is a heart-rending album about an agonising topic and for what it’s worth I really hope that Phil and his daughter will be okay. A Crow Looked At Me is a masterpiece, so much so that it’s nearly unlistenable. By no means will anyone be cruising in a car and playing this on their way to work. There’s nothing to look forward to, only the dire, desperate plead to look back. Hopefully, by keeping that chasm open, the memories you carry will somehow fill that void. In time these memories won’t include dead body tissues, jaundiced skin, and the routes around hospitals. Mount Eerie has crafted a masterwork out of the unassailable feeling of loss, and Genevieve would be extremely proud of what Phil has created in her honour.
Top Tier: EVERY TRACK MADE ME CRY. ALL ARE GOOD. NO BAD, NO MID, NO BOOBOO. LISTEN TO THIS ALBUM, BUT LIKE IF I HAD TO PICK SOME ‘FAVORITES,’ AND I USE THAT TERM LOOSELY BECAUSE IT’S ALL SO FUCKING GODDAMN SAD/GOOD, IT WOULD BE: