Mount Eerie // A Crow Looked at Me (24 March, 2017)

On July 9th, 2016, Phil Elverum’s wife, musician Geneviève Castrée Elverum, died of inoperable pancreatic cancer. She was 35-years old, leaving behind her parents, a husband, and a daughter not yet two-years-old. In Phil Elverum’s own words, “Words fail.” A Crow Looked at Me is not, in a sense, an album; rather it is a document of grief, a spare and sprawling prose-poem of a man’s thoughts and feelings on a love lost too early. Through much of the record, Elverum, in his eighth album under the name Mount Eerie, speaks directly to Geneviève. He does not mince words: “You have been dead eleven days,” he says, his mind and body a shell. Opener “Real Death” is a tone-setter; “Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not.” He has a journalistic, achingly personal way of talk-singing, conversing with empty air. A Crow Looked at Me is such an astounding record because it strips all notion of art from expiration; death as concept. It is the diary of a man in mourning, for both his dead wife and a child who will never know her mother. “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”

A Crow Looked at Me is understandably a hard listen, for numerous reasons. The songs were recorded with only a laptop and microphone. There is no complex instrumentation. Guitar and Elverum’s soft voice are the staples, occasionally buffed by piano keys and rough percussion and what sounds like a breathing machine. It can be an incredibly painful listen, but one I am unable to shake, unable to stop dissecting. The casual poetry of Elverum’s words, in talking to both himself and Geneviève, leave one breathless. In “Forest Fire,” Elverum deals with the passing of time without Geneviève, framed by a forest fire that has been burning since her passing. “The year moves on without you in it. Now it is fall without you.” A forest fire, a natural process of burning undergrowth and restoring nutrients to the soil—nature reclaiming her territory—is not an acceptable answer to a man in mourning. “I reject nature, I disagree.” This does not come easily. Mount Eerie has always been a passion project for Elverum, much of his music exploring his fascination with the natural world and its machination. But now, “The leaf on the ground pokes at my slumbering grief. Walking around, severed, lumbering.”

In “Swims,” Geneviève’s ashes are made to swim in the ocean. Of course, this box of ashes is not Geneviève. “I can’t get the image out of my head of when I held you right there and watched you die.” It is abundantly clear throughout A Crow Looked at Me that Geneviève’s passing is fresh, as though it were yesterday. She died in July, and not nine months later Elverum released this journal to the public. I can’t imagine that decision. It must have felt necessary, not art as therapy necessarily, but some way of honoring her. Both were musicians, both relatively reclusive. And now, one must eulogize the other. “Today our daughter asked me if Mama swims. I told her ‘Yes she does, and that’s probably all she does now.’ What was you is now borne across waves, evaporating.” Just before Geneviève swims, Elverum sings “We are all always so close to not existing at all,” no wry smile on his face, as though he has dropped profundity in the lap of the listener. No, not at all. “Death is real.”

On “My Chasm,” Phil grasps living a relatively public life without Geneviève. “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” Knowing the answer, he chooses to seclude himself in her room and make music. On “Emptiness pt. 2,” Elverum further rebukes the idea that there is any life lesson to be learned from his wife’s passing: “There is nothing to learn. Her absence is a scream.” On and on he provides these short blurbs of numb poetry, so personal you can’t help but be reminded that, at some point, all of us will either deal with or deal this pain to another. On “Toothbrush / Trash,” Elverum grapples with fading memories. The song’s first act, a meditation on “The quiet untreasured in between times,” is focused on small, even mundane recollections of Geneviève. Her singing on the staircase, the slight smell of pine thrush in her hair, the squeak of her chair when she shifts her weight. The second act is an honest admission that Geneviève is gone, and she’s not coming back. The wind blows a door closed, and for just a second, Elverum thinks it may be her, returning from wherever it is she’s been. But he turns and sees no one, feeling only the wind between his fingers.

“Soria Moria” is crushing, an album’s-worth of ideas and feelings. Named after a painting by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, the mythical Soria Moria Castle is said to be a place of perfect happiness. The castle sits atop a large hill; a deep valley of fog blocks the direct path to the castle, forcing one to venture into the unknown and make their own way. “Slow pulsing red tower lights across a distance, refuge in the dust.” Phil’s idea of Soria Moria Castle is not clear. I’m hesitant to assign it a meaning; the castle, and the song itself, are a mystery. He is searching for that place, a refuge of light and happiness, but the road is murky and surrounded by clouds; he feels directionless, but he plods on. “I knew exactly where the road bent around, where the trees opened up and I could see. Way above the horizon, beyond innumerable islands.” Elverum’s poetics are incredible, this intent to give peace a physical body, a place one has to find independently. A castle and its many walls. And he is close. “I have not stopped looking across the water from the few difficult spots where you can see that the distance, from this haunted house where I lived to Soria Moria, is a real traversable space. I’m an arrow now, mid-air.”

“Are you dreaming about a crow?” On the album’s final song, “Crow,” Phil and his daughter are walking through the woods. They search for the forest fire zone where, in August, Mother Nature destroyed her flora and began to rebuild. As he hiked, daughter slung across his back, cradled and sleeping, a solitary crow followed along. “Sweet kid, we were watched and followed and I thought of Geneviève. Sweet kid, I heard you murmur in your sleep. ‘Crow,’ you said, ‘Crow’ And I asked, ‘Are you dreaming about a crow?’ And there she was.”

A Crow Looked at Me is not an album. Nor is it a work of art, truly. It is the most honest, unflinching, and heartbreaking thing I have ever come across. It is impossibly sad, wrought with death, grief, and loneliness. It is a wholly necessary album from a man trying something, anything to get by. He may never reach Soria Moria Castle, but that does not mean he won’t try. And through all my repeated listening, the hours and hours I’ve poured into this work, there is no profound sentiment to extract from this record; no punchline, no proper ending. I’m always brought back to the beginning, the entire album’s meaning found the last line of Crow‘s first song. “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: the album, front to back.

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Wilco // Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has always felt just out of reach. It’s easy, perhaps convenient, to forget the album was recorded prior to the September 11th attacks, as the two seem irrevocably intertwined; the suggestive cover art (Chicago’s twin Marina City towers overlooking the Chicago River); song titles like “War on War” and lyrics like “Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs”; an unofficial release on September 18th, 2001. Musically, it is incomparably and irresistibly strange, idiosyncratic to a fault. In Uncut‘s original 2001 review of the album, it was labeled, perhaps unfairly, as “Americana’s Kid A.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a monolith, a work of art so infinitely flexible and brilliant it had already been canonized as a true American masterpiece. And it was a hare’s breath away from being an epic disaster.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lives and dies in the discordant piano clangs of album opener “I am trying to break your heart.” “Still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy” says Jeff Tweedy, his slight smirk becoming more pronounced by the second. Tweedy is not the prototypical singer-songwriter. His voice doesn’t shine in the darkness; in fact, prior to YHF, Tweedy’s vocals were often downplayed in favor of more interesting guitar and percussion work. Likewise, his alt-country style of lyricism was dismissed by some critics as plain and overly sentimental. But something clicked with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and sixteen years later, it’s still difficult to tell exactly what went right. But above all else, the album revealed something that still holds true to this day: Jeff Tweedy is not afraid to make mistakes.

“There is something wrong with me,” he sings on “Radio cure,” giving no hint as to who he’s talking to. Later on, amidst a chorus of bright chimes, Tweedy crones “Distance has no way of making love understandable.” Both of those phrases—each one a mental double take seemingly soaked in metaphor—are very simple. There are dozens and dozens of moments in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in which a two-lane highway is found to contain sudden speed changes, winding curves, and innumerable exit ramps. Each song is an experiment of itself, comfortable enough to just exist but free enough to test its borders.

It therefore comes as no surprise that such a risky album spent a significant amount of time in limbo. Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Jay Bennett clashed constantly throughout the album-making process: Bennett was apt to focus on small musical minutiae in individual songs, such as the brief transition from “Ashes of American Flags” into “Heavy metal drummer,” an event seen in Sam Jones’ film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which documented the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy was wholly unconcerned with the transition, more focused on the broader thematic questions of the album. Attempting to bridge the gap between their different points-of-view, Tweedy invited record producer and musician Jim O’Rourke to mix “I am trying to break your heart.” Tweedy liked the results, and O’Rourke subsequently mixed the album. When all was said and done, Tweedy removed guitarist Jay Bennett from the band.

At nearly the same time, Wilco’s label, Reprise Records, came under new management. David Kahne, the A&R representative for Reprise, was left with the decision of whether or not to release the album. Worried about being bogged-down by tedious back-and-forth arguing, Wilco negotiated a buyout from Reprise, securing the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the process. Tweedy was hellbent on releasing the album as closely to its scheduled release date (September 11th, 2001) as possible. The following week, on September 18th, Wilco streamed the album in its entirety on their website. It was a surprising hit; traffic to the website increased tenfold, and the subsequent tour was a massive success. Tweedy noted that audiences sang along to tracks that had not yet been “officially” released. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s commercial release would not come until seven months later; Nonesuch Records dropped the physical album on April 23rd, 2002.

Once again, mistakenly, YHF seems a product of this tumult rather than an inanimate player. It is a work of art entangled in deep mythology. “Ashes of American Flags” paints an eerily prophetic picture of post-9/11 America. Tweedy half-sings “I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck,” uninterested in waxing poetic about the chaos of modern American life. Poetry abstracts reality, separating its many parts in an attempt to piece them back together in a way that makes complex thoughts, feelings, and experiences seem profoundly simple. That’s great and all, but Jeff Tweedy doesn’t really give a fuck—and for that matter, neither do we.

Chaos is forever chaotic; there is no way to rationalize hatred or violence or the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center. It’s all chaos; chaos and randomness. Tweedy brings the track to a sobering end, singing “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags / And all the dead leaves filling up shopping bags.” He seems to be making some off-color reference to reincarnation. Dead leaves can return to their tree, but the tree takes a different form; it is certainly not the same, but is it altogether that different? If the American flag is reduced to ashes, who’s to say we can’t pick up the smoldering pieces and build anew?

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on the whole, is not a record of doom-and-gloom. “Heavy metal drummer” is a pure nostalgia trip: “I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands / I used to go see on the landing in the summer,” Tweedy sings, and one pictures an 18-year old Jeff Tweedy drunkenly headbanging to a Guns N’ Roses cover band. It’s bittersweet, in a sense, because there comes a point in everyone’s life where worry supersedes carelessness. It becomes harder and harder to let loose. The chorus, in contrast, is miles removed from the desolation described in “Ashes of American Flags”: “I miss the innocence I’ve known / Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”

“Heavy metal drummer” is upbeat; the guitars smile and bounce among lively piano chords that puncture the end of every measure. For a man opposed to poetry, Tweedy has a curious tendency to make a quiet phrase snap. “Unlock my body and move myself to dance” he whistles, memories of carefree summer nights populating his mind. Each song on YHF works together in the oddest of ways. “Heavy metal drummer” is followed by “I’m the man who loves you.” The latter song begins with a wink to the prior—a smooth and smothered guitar riff, Wilco performing their sincerest heavy metal tribute.

Early-album track “War on war” is arguably YHF‘s best song. Deceptively straightforward, the song is constantly in motion. Rhythmic distortion melts into an infectious guitar strum, with Tweedy chiming, “It’s a war on war, it’s a war on war.” The chorus betrays the lightness of the music: “You’re gonna lose / You have to lose / You have to learn how to die / If you want to, want to be alive.” Once again, worldly context and pure happenstance dictate the song’s interpretation. It’s an ominous precursor to the reality of a very real war, and a quietly damning statement on the uselessness of violence begetting violence.

On “Pot kettle black,” there is a less imposing statement that echoes the chorus of “War on war”: “But I’m not gonna get caught calling a pot kettle black / Every song is a comeback / Every moment’s a little bit later.” This could be Tweedy’s roundabout way of saying it’s impossible to plan for the future; hardships exists around every corner, and it’s a fool’s errand to formulate an answer, any answer, that would satisfy the randomness of life.

Penultimate track “Poor places” is perfectly scored by a luscious fusion of guitar and piano. Tweedy sounds increasingly desperate as the song moves forward; he references his own problems with alcoholism (“There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much”) and loneliness (“My voice is climbing walls / Smoking, and I want love”). In the midst of the other existential themes of YHF, these lines are positively human. The album’s final offering, “Reservations,” is a song of uncertainty. “How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like?” Tweedy asks. The track is a necessary capstone to an album informed by personal experiences; it’s an unequivocal confession that Tweedy, even at his most creatively fearless, still has doubts. But there’s something that keeps the song grounded—or rather, someone. “Oh I’ve got reservations about so many things / But not about you / It’s not about you.”

The future significance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is unknown. That being said, it’s been fifteen years, and the album feels as fresh and relevant as day one. It’s a purely American record, a holistic document of a pre- and post-war emotions. It comes off as authentic because it is just that—authentic; YHF is unafraid to pose the kind of questions that beg for an answer. Each track is furiously independent, but when wrapped together, the full picture emerges. I’m convinced that picture looks different to each individual.

There is an irony sewn into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: outward certainty and internal doubt walk hand-in-hand. That toeing of the line is what makes it so special. Feelings are either taken at face value or left completely unsaid. It is an album replete with thousands of small, intense moments, each burning hotter and brighter than the next. As I said before, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lives and dies in that first minute of “I am trying to break your heart.” The instruments can’t quite find harmony; they are unsure of themselves, not confident to settle in any one place. Finally, through the clamor, a lone guitar breathes a soft rhythm, and a song is born. Tweedy sings “What was I thinking when I let you back in?” That question, as with so many others, doesn’t need to be answered. It is best left alone; the answer exists, no doubt, but it is somehow just out of reach.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “I am trying to break your heart,” “Radio cure,” “War on war,” “Jesus, etc.,” “Ashes of American Flags,” “Heavy metal drummer,” “Pot kettle black, “Poor places”

 

 

Julie Byrne // Not Even Happiness (13 January, 2017)

However quiet and calm her voice, Julie Byrne is an incredibly self-assured artist. Her songwriting is immediate and elegant. She herself is a picture of so many folk artists that came before: restless, heartsick, fed up with the modern world and its boorishness. “To me this city’s hell, but I know you call it home / I was made for the green, made to be alone” she sings on album opener “Follow My Voice,” not at all timid. Not Even Happiness, Byrne’s second LP, is a rich work of beauty and—most importantly—clarity.

Byrne’s soft, velveteen voice and expertly plucked guitar are the foundation of Not Even Happiness‘ nine tracks. She is divinely confident, piercing small moments with incredibly observed lyrics (“Driving through southwestern towns that I had been in before / Sun split ember, and fields that span forever, forever”). On “Sleepwalker,” she sings “Before you, had I ever known love / Or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?” at a careful, airy pace. Byrne is the archetype singer-songwriter, intent on solitude but somehow still longing for connection and companionship (“I grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude / But I long for you now, even when you just leave the room”). She is an artist of the old order and the new; picking at her guitar, daydreaming of a world with clear skies and green pastures. She has the power to reflect, relive, and heal.

“Melting Grid,” a magnificent piece of songwriting, finds Byrne (accompanied by flute) geographically tracing the places she’s been. Colorado, Wyoming, “Kansas, Arkansas, my fields they’re always rich and in fire.” Julie Byrne is an exceptional songwriter, one with the ability to tell a story while withholding intricate detail. Some of Not Even Happiness‘ most interesting stories are the ones she chooses to not expound upon. “And would you ask my permission the next time you absorb me?” she sings, her tone edgeless but resolute. There’s a sense that Byrne makes music as therapy, which allows her songs the rare opportunity to emanate purity. Not Even Happiness is a record without reservation, a small and quiet world where all things are of equal importance—in a sense, free. Her carefully scored “Interlude” is the perfect example, a simple harmony of strings and nearly inaudible piano atop the calming sound of ocean waves. It is silent, perfect, complete.

“Morning Dove,” Exhibit A for Julie Byrne the Guitarist, is a song from a woman who has spent much her life wanting and waiting. Both measured and urgent, Byrne’s lyrics are once again her greatest revelation; “All I bear, all I sieve, I thought of you so presently” she sings with her heart on both sleeves. She is not so much lovesick as she is a lonely soul, a woman convinced that no matter who or what comes into her life, there is a small piece of her that will always feel incomplete. But she is fighting the urge to isolate. “And life is short as a breath half-taken / I could not wait to tell you the truth.”

On “All the Land Glimmered,” Byrne’s guitar squeaks and clacks beneath her fingers, a necessary distress as she sings “Searching for an anchor, I’ve been seeking god within.” The track that follows, “Sea as It Glides,” is Julie Byrne’s “Hallelujah,” a tranquil walk through her happy place. Her guitar, as ever, is the propeller, and Byrne’s quiet, brilliant voice pays revery the word “You.” There is a sacred quality to the song, as though she has found the god she had been searching for within. Though many (if not all) of the tracks on Not Even Happiness play like love songs, Julie Byrne is not so quick to spill her heart on the page. Her heart is a roaming object, so often distant and closed-off that when she finally lets you into her world, it plays like a breath of fresh sea air.

In the spirit of many great folk records, Not Even Happiness is at once illuminating and aloof. It is the idea of art as therapy, as healing. It’s the work of a growing artist and an eager human being, one unafraid to admit “And yes, I’ve broke down asking for forgiveness / When I was not close to forgiving myself.” She desires clarity, a clear consciousness and an open heart. For Julie Byrne, happiness is simply not enough.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Follow My Voice,” “Sleepwalker,” “Melting Grid,” “Natural Blue,” “Morning Dove,” “Sea as It Glides,” “I Live Now as a Singer”