Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me (2017)

 

 

Mount Erie A Crow Looked At Me phil elverum

Phil Elverum’s 12th full-length release as Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me, is soul-crushing. There’s no other way to approach it. Written and recorded in the months leading up to and following his wife Geneviève Castrée’s death, the album is an intimate look into Phil’s grieving process and coming to terms with the new life that has been thrust upon him. The record is difficult to listen to, and most would be hard pressed to define it as “enjoyable.” Many critics have questioned whether they should impose their opinions on the album, or if it can even be considered music, and even Elverum himself declares that death isn’t “for singing about” or “for making into art” in the first minute of the record, thus substantiating that view. Despite these doubts it most certainly is art.

The sudden nature of Geneviève’s diagnosis and battle with cancer is reflected in the album’s sonic style in the context of his discography. Making a sharp U-turn from the electronic tinged, drone folk of recent LPs Clear Moon, Sauna, and Ocean Roar, A Crow Looked at Me employs quiet, spare instrumentals. It calls to mind another Mount Eerie record, Dawn, an album created when Phil retreated to a solitary Norwegian cabin, which imparts the sense of isolation his wife’s passing has brought about. Littered throughout the 11-song run are times when a pause lingers a few seconds more than what is comfortable or even natural for the song structure. These echoes are a beautiful yet painful reminder that for as well as Phil is keeping it together, his life has been shattered in an unnatural manner.

The album starts off with  “Real Death,” and as the title suggests, the track doesn’t mince words about what the album is about. Gone are the intricate metaphors about the natural world and universe that once abounded in Mount Eerie albums are traded out in favor of terse, diaristic descriptions of the unfamiliar landscape Phil finds himself in. The lyrics read as if they had been pulled from a journal that was never meant to see the light of day, because they were. In the liner notes of the album Elverum explains, “I’d unloaded my mind into a notebook all through the previous year, but never with the intention of making songs… I did not intend on returning to my life as a song maker.” The journalistic nature of the lyrics is exactly what makes the songs as beautiful as they are. Despite how wordy and seemingly meandering the lyrics are, every single word is important, there’s no fat to be trimmed. A Crow Looked at Me is a collection of vignettes that constantly remind the listener that no matter how much pain he is in, the world is still moving on with or without him. “Real Death” being the album’s lead single and first track fittingly presents the thesis of the work as a whole without trying to lead the listener by the nose to a predestined conclusion or bait them into the album without full knowledge of what it will contain. In spite of the material’s constancy, each song stings in a way distinct to the one before it

The album explores the beginning of  Elverum picking up the pieces of his former life and how it is jarringly, and almost unexpectedly halted by reminders of Geneviève’s illness. During “Real Death” he receives a backpack that Geneviève ordered and is thrown back into the pain he has been trying to block out. Even when there seems to be an uneasy balance between death’s shock and the mundane day-to-day trappings of life, trauma is never more than a turn of the corner away. “Forest Fire” compares the clearing out of Geneviève’s possessions, a symbolic act that is supposed to bring closure, to the cleansing power of a nearby forest fire until Phil cracks and makes a desperate cry against nature, “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.” The song brings up the question of how Phil is supposed to reconcile his memories and life of a 13-year-long relationship with the new reality of being 38-year-old widower? The hardest part of the record is that the only answer to these questions is a resounding silence.

Life continues to go on despite the lack of answers. On “Swims” Elverum tackles his new life as a single parent and the difficulties of explaining death to his daughter. One of the most absurd episodes on a record that’s built around the absurdity of a sudden death occurs when Phil and Geneviève’s counselor dies two months after Geneviève. Just when it seemed like the world couldn’t invent a new way to hurt him, it does. It’s these fleeting moments that characterize the record’s portrayal of an unpredictably macabre world. And while still getting used to all the preceding events, Phil’s daughter butts in by asking “if mama swims,” making Elverum’s wounds fresh again. The only response he can muster is “Yes, she does/and that’s probably all she does now.”

On the whole, A Crow Looked at Me is a raw, painful, and powerful album. There have been an abundance of critically acclaimed albums about death in the last few years (Benji, Carrie & Lowell, Blackstar, etc.), but most usually have a bright spot in them, or at least some degree of build-up to the death so that listeners can prepare. The proximity of the recordings to Castreè’s death, however, turns the album into 11 successive moments of devastation. There are no bright spots; each track finds some new way to hit the listener where it hurts most. Ironically, the most revealing lyric on an album whose direct, personal lyrics were literally torn from the pages of a journal comes in the form of a more oblique line on “Swims:” “We are all always so close to not existing at all / Except in the confusion of our survived-bys grasping at the echoes.” This album will continue to exist through the ripples and echoes it navigates for years to come.

Author: Cameron

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