Phil Elverum Shares The Reality of Death

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Not many artists are able to make sad music that also feels earnest. Incorporating death — or sadness of any kind — into art is a tightrope walk. There’s a fine line between something genuine and the diary scrawls of a depressed teenager. Trust me on this one.

Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum lost his wife to pancreatic cancer last July. This is something that I’m unable to identify with. It’s something that I never hope to be able to identify with. I have no idea with Elverum is going through, but A Crow Looked At Me gives me a beautiful, gruesome peek.

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Music in this vein has traditionally been some of my favorite. I named Sun Kil Moon’s Benji my favorite album of 2014 and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell my favorite of 2015. Of the two, A Crow Looked At Me bares much more resemblance to the former, although it feels like comparing a lake to an ocean. Where Stevens harnesses lilting guitar licks to convey emotion, Elverum keeps his instrumentation slow and sleepy. Where Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek uses the death of a distant relative to poke and prod at life’s dramatic irony, Elverum has nothing left but a dead wife, an infant daughter, and a heap of memories and emotions.

The album doesn’t really feel like an album at all. Elverum himself called it “barely music,” and I’m glad he did because it makes me feel better about reaching the same conclusion. The album feels less like a collection of songs and more like a collection of poems and short stories in audiobook form, set to guitars and sparse pianos. It even follows a chronological path.

The story starts just days after the tragedy.Elverum tells of wailing on his front steps after opening a package addressed to his late wife. Inside was a backpack she had secretly ordered for their infant daughter. “You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known deep down would not include you,” he says.

He shares an anger I cannot fathom. “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this.” On the next song, he calls his current situation a “crushing absurdity.”

Later, he’s travelled to an island where he and his wife had planned to build a home. He brought a chair with him:

“I’m leaving it on the hill,

Facing west and north.

And I poured out your ashes on it,

I guess so you can watch the sunset.

But the truth is, I don’t think of that dust as you.

You are the sunset.”

The album works like this — waves of memories and stories punctuated by devastating lines that are so searing they cannot possibly be anything but earnest. There’s no way to possibly romanticize or over-dramatize this, nor any need to.

Elverum painstakingly plucks at the strings that tie to what’s been lost, drawing lines to everything from blackbirds to forest fires and finally back to his missing partner.

Like any good story, there are reoccurring settings (the family home, the bedroom, the lake), common motifs (birds; windows, doors, and how the warm breeze interacts with the two), symbolism (a forest fire), and character depth (the innocent eyes of the young daughter serve as a foil to Elverum’s hardened outlook). Some chapters are long and grand. “Soria Moria” is six and a half minutes about a fictional castle and how it represents a paradise Elverum will always be able to gaze upon but never be able to reach. Conversely, other chapters are shorter than two and a half minutes and tell stories about grocery shopping or taking out the trash.

It’s a detailed sleepwalk through Elverum’s new life, and it’s one that I cannot imagine being strong enough to share. Perhaps there’s something cathartic about memorializing the lost in song, but this still had to be a fantastically painful album to create. Where “cheaper” art romanticizes death by sanding off its roughest edges, Elverum is brave enough to talk about throwing out his dead wife’s belongings: her toothbrush, her underwear, her “dried out, bloody, end-of-life tissues.”

“Death is real,” Elverum says at the very start. “Someone’s there and then they’re not. And it’s not for singing about. It’s not for making into art.”

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a widower navigates a post-apocalyptic world with his son. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me feels the same in many ways, although instead of a son, Elverum has a daughter, and instead of an global apocalypse, Elverum’s wasteland is blisteringly personal.

McCarthy closes his story with one of my favorite passages of fiction ever:

“Once there were brook trouts in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

McCarthy’s sprawling, harrowing story of destruction and death is punctuated by something oddly poetic, finite, and hopeful.

Elverum takes a similar route on the closer, “Crow”. It’s mid-November now, and his wife has been gone for four months. He’s taken a hike, dozing daughter on his back, hoping to gaze upon the destruction the aforementioned forest fire wrought.

The warm breeze described throughout the album is now cold. The trail with the view of the forest fire zone is closed. He won’t be allowed to look. The birds that dotted the story have migrated south — all except for one.

Elverum talks to the sleeping girl dangling from his back:

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.