Please be advised: the following piece discusses death, cancer, and grief in great detail.
Album cover courtesy of Mount Eerie
Review by Michael O'Neill
We tend to think of death as a concept in the abstract. For the fortunate among us, we mostly encounter death in detached forms; it’s somebody on the news or a character in a film. They’re stories, and sad ones, but they feel impersonal, removed. Death is something we all understand the premise of, but we know so little about what it actually consists of that it doesn’t feel real to us. Until it does.
Once death finds its way into our personal lives, as it did recently for Mount Eerie, it—at least temporarily—becomes suffocatingly tangible. It takes away those we love, and we are left to reconcile with what that means. Sometimes it catches us by surprise, leaving us shocked and grieving at the same time. Sometimes, death teases us, hinting at its own arrival before darting back into the bushes, leaving us knowing that it’s only a matter of time before it comes back. Sometimes, perhaps even frequently, we think about our own deaths; some may even crave it. Under all of these circumstances, death is no longer hypothetical. Suddenly, death is real.
Those three words—“death is real”—are the first spoken on Mount Eerie’s latest offering, A Crow Looked At Me. Mount Eerie is the long-term solo project of former frontman of The Microphones, Phil Elverum, whose wife Geneviève passed away of pancreatic cancer last July shortly after giving birth to the couple’s daughter. A Crow Looked At Me centers exclusively around her death and Elverum’s life afterwards. Calling this an album almost feels misleading—each track operates more as a confessional than a song. The lyrics are blunt; the choruses are non-existent. Most tracks finish unresolved, with Elverum leaving a closing line hanging in the air with painful resonance. In terms of instrumentation, it’s sparse, with muted guitars and very little percussion making this project sound almost non-musical. Instead, A Crow Looked At Me feels like a representation, an experience, a tragedy.
“Real Death” opens the project and sets the tone without any uncertainty. “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not,” he states, before pointing the finger at himself: “And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making art.” That line is as self-referential as you’ll find in music, and within 15 seconds of A Crow Looked At Me it’s already given us an idea of how devastated and directionless Elverum feels in the wake of Geneviève’s death. Elverum then describes a scene where he collapses after a backpack arrives for his daughter, ordered by Geneviève before her death. All of this is backed by quiet, meditative guitar and a slow-shuffling beat that’s meant to resemble a medical ventilator. Finally, Elverum ends with one final gut punch: “It’s dumb / And I don’t want to learn anything from this / I love you.”
Frankly, listening to and writing about this record is difficult. I can’t recall ever witness such a raw and direct expression of such tremendous pain in any art form, not just music. At times, A Crow Looked At Me feels almost voyeuristic; the whole time, Elverum is recounting detailed anecdotes about coping as a widower, whether it be visiting the place where he and Geneviève planned to build a house together or throwing away her toothbrush months after her passing. It’s like reading somebody’s diary, except Elverum is putting his grief out for the world to hear.
Several lyrical themes pop up multiple times throughout the album, constantly reminding us that mourning is cyclical and ceaseless. Elverum sings about not being able to be in the room where she died; he speculates as to whether various living creatures around him are Geneviève watching over him from beyond; he struggles with what to do with her ashes and what they actually represent. By far the most poignant of these, however, is the existence of his now-motherless daughter. “Today our daughter asked me if mama swims,” he sings on “Swims.” Album closer “Crow,” sung directly to his daughter, is even less compromising: “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you? / Smoldering and fascist and with no mother.” It’s worth remembering that during this process, Elverum is also learning how to be a single parent, and that battle occupies a great deal of A Crow Looked At Me.
In interviews, Elverum has stated that the goal of A Crow Looked At Me was not to be “confronting people about mortality.” But it’s hard to hear this in any other way. A Crow Looked At Me is pain; it’s despair, it’s heartbreak, it’s not knowing how or where to go forward. But it’s also love; not once on the album does Elverum ever wonder if it was all worth it, if the time he shared with Geneviève wasn’t worth the suffering he felt now. “When we met in person it was instant,” he says, adding, “That was really true for thirteen years / And the whole time still.” The pain is so great only because the love was even greater. A Crow Looked At Me may be a brutal, emotionally crushing album, but it’s only able to be that because of the great beauty that preceded it. So, then, A Crow Looked At Me serves as a reminder: a reminder that yes, death is real, but so is life.