Mount Eerie A Crow Looked at Me(P. W. Elverum & Sun) Buy it from Insound
When Phil Elverum announced Mount Eerie’s live return in January - an unplugged set, in a local record store - he was overwhelmed by the reaction and eventually had to tell people not to come at all. While he was taken aback that so many people had an interest, it wasn’t surprising - many were curious to hear just what he had produced following the death of his wife, Geneviève, in July 2016.
A Crow Looked at Me isn’t a collection of songs just shaped or affected by grief in the same way Nick Cave’s incredible Skeleton Tree was, but a direct and frank response - written not only to describe the mourning process, but as an active part of it. The album centres on the struggles Elverum faced following his wife’s passing, through some intense and specific lyricism rather than existential questions. It’s not for the lack of trying: on both Seaweed and Ravens, he desperately tries to find solace in the signs around him, be it Canada geese or the flowers, but there’s nothing to offer comfort as he breaks down and repeats, “Then I remember, death is real.”
That phrase, “death is real,” is the opening line of the album, and is repeated throughout. Elverum had discussed death and mortality on his past work with the Microphones and Mount Eerie, but Geneviève's struggle with pancreatic cancer proved to be a jarring contrast to the fictional, detached feeling he felt before. There’s a stunning line on Emptiness pt.2 where Elverum sings, “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about before I knew my way around these hospitals.” There are lyrics like this, lines that makes a listener stop in their tracks, littered throughout the album, and the instrumentation is so spare it’s impossible not to take note.
The music may prove too one-dimensional and bare for many, and Elverum acknowledged in an interview with Pitchfork that the “New album is barely music. It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.” It does seem as though Elverum wrote enough of the music to fit around the lyrics and then turned his focus elsewhere, leaving abrupt endings and some songs sounding a little too thin. There’s enough variety to last the album’s duration, but it is unlikely to be an album that will reward repeated listens.
Not that this is an album many will rush back to, anyway. It proves to be an uncomfortable listening experience, almost like intruding on Elverum’s grief - especially when he addresses his wife directly and apologises for attempting to move on on Forest Fire. It feels similar to stumbling across a diary, leafing through it, and deriving a peculiar enjoyment from it. The contradiction of revelling in something so immensely sad is something that Elverum possibly hadn’t considered, but makes the project all the more compelling for it.
It’s interesting to question if Eleverum ever considered the wider audience while making this record. While death is the most universal of themes, the specificity of the lyrics means that it’s less about the concept, but more about Elverum’s own struggle, and how he attempts to face the future. It’s difficult not be moved when listening to Seaweed, as he visits the island his family were going to move to, but now he stands with his daughter and Geneviève's urn. This is an album written in the ruins of hope, a future that was abruptly cancelled, and it’s difficult for the songwriter to ignore what could have been.
There’s also a subtle beauty in how he addresses his daughter throughout the album. She remains a constant wherever Elverum travels and it proves significant that, as the album closes on Crow - a song about their journey together as they return to a scene of devastation - he begins to address her directly in a song for the first time. There are no grand conclusions to be found, but there is a sense of calm as his daughter falls asleep in his backpack while they carry on exploring this new world together.
Despite the increased intrigue into his personal life, Elverum has been able to make the tribute he wanted for Geneviève. The album is both heartbreaking and haunting, but at the album’s core is a subtle, delicate love story between two artists that was tragically cut short. In many ways, assigning a score to a project like this is reductive, and it’s almost insulting to rank something as open and raw as this. Even if Elverum is reluctant to label it as such, A Crow Looked at Me is what all art should aspire to be: honest, affecting, and unforgettable. [Believe the Hype]23 March, 2017 - 16:53 — Matthew Smith