Photo courtesy of pwelverumandsun.bandcamp.com
BY PARKER KLYN
In a just world, this record wouldn’t exist. A Crow Looked At Me, the eighth full-length project from Mount Eerie auteur and former Microphones frontman Phil Elverum, is an album that reflects on the death of Elverum’s wife. (Genevieve passed away from cancer last summer.)
It’s punishingly bleak and hopelessly sad, with very little optimism about the future. Elverum barely even considers that life could possibly return to a state of normalcy, and the music matches that tone with dull grays and browns through deadened singing and meandering guitar.
The album opens with a simple, devastating line: “Death is real.” Elverum is blunt about his wife and her passing and how he’s not simply picking up a guitar and writing songs about her. “It’s not for singing about, and it’s not for turning into art,” he coos, affirming that this isn’t for money or to capitalize on a tragedy, but to express that he really, truly did love her unconditionally. He tells a heartbreaking story of finding a child’s backpack in the mail after Genevieve died, realizing that she ordered it even though she knew she wouldn’t be around for their daughter’s first days of school. After realizing what it was, Elverum collapsed on his front steps and wailed with sadness.
On “Ravens,” Elverum recalls seeing two crows and being unable to shake the feeling that they were bad omens. He then moves to the days after Genevieve’s death, when he and his daughter traveled to the beach house they had planned to move to, relinquishing her ashes to the ocean on the way out.
The most shocking part of A Crow Looked At Me is the bluntness and honesty in the lyrics; Elverum doesn’t mince words. “You died though,” he says on “Seaweed” after talking about what might have been. “Forest Fire” is the album’s denial song, where Elverum appears standoffish and confrontational against the mutations that led to her death: “This devastation is not natural or good/ You do belong here/ I reject nature, I disagree.” On “My Chasm,” he reveals his frustration with people’s desire to avoid the topic of Genevieve, calling his loss a “chasm he takes into town” and imploring people to “Look at me. Death is real!”
The parts where Elverum brings up his daughter are the most heartbreaking. She’s 2 years old now, barely able to comprehend where her mother is. “Today my daughter asked me if mama swims,” Elverum sighs. “I told her ‘Yes, she does, and that’s probably all she does now.’”
The music on A Crow Looked At Me is bare and minimal. The formerly quirky Elverum now deadpans each of his lyrics; he sounds like he’s on the verge of breaking down with each new line. Most tracks are only accompanied by Elverum’s own acoustic or electric guitar, with some light tapping percussion. That’s it. The lyrics and mood are front and center here; he has stories to tell.
Each of the last three years have seen high-profile singer-songwriters offer their album-length reflections on death: Sufjan Stevens on the death of his mother, Nick Cave on the death of his son, Mark Kozelek on death’s ubiquity. A Crow Looked At Me is different because it is so focused on the actual, tangible implications of death; there are no obscure metaphors to pore through on this album. The goal isn’t to find some deeper meaning in death, because for Elverum, there isn’t any; people are here, and then they disappear.
As I write this review, it’s overcast in the early evening. Today’s temperamental midwestern weather had been somber at best, with light drizzles of rain. The trees have yet to regrow their leaves after winter, and the grass is just as much brown as it is green. Sitting in my upstairs room overlooking a gravel lot, unable to see anyone outside, makes the name Mount Eerie seem appropriate. It’s how I imagine the solitary Elverum must have felt writing and recording these eleven songs; nobody, not even his young daughter, can possibly grasp the full extent of his pain. The worst pain isn’t that which sears and burns – it’s that which is dull, lying within you like a bruise that refuses to heal. With A Crow Looked At Me, in showing us how permanent a pain like this is, Elverum has ironically proved the basic nature of life: its lack of permanence. It’s a message I won’t soon forget.