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.”
Favorite tracks: the album, front to back.