“Death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not and it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art” is the lyric that opens the new Mount Eerie album. For context, in July of 2016 Phil Elverrum’s wife Genevieve Castrée Elverum died of pancreatic cancer, little over a year after giving birth to their daughter. Phil Elverum has never really been one to divulge his private life, so it was a shock when Genevieve’s condition was made public just a month before her death via a GoFundMe campaign. I remember being told about it after the fact, and feeling sadness for Elverum, but quietly anticipating any music that might come out of such a tragedy. It’s a shitty thing to expect, I realise in hindsight. Highly disrespectful of me to romanticise the real sadness of an artist in this way, and to expect them to produce something that is sad to fulfil a need for entertainment. It seems Phil Elverum was aware of this expectation, the literal first lyric of the album addresses it—death is real, not abstraction.
Phil Elverum has always made sad music, first with The Microphones, producing two definitive albums of the early 2000s, The Glow Pt.2 and Mount Eerie (taking up the name of the latter in early 2003). His music is sad in a kind of grandiose way, with huge swathes of dense instrumentation and highly abstract lyricism, intense atmosphere by way of blunt force trauma. Friends have criticized the band in the past for being vague Thoreau worshiping, mountain climbing hipsters, and it’s not an unfair assessment (traditionally, Mount Eerie have produced the kind of music to make you want to go outside at four in the morning and stare at the sunrise). A Crow Looked at Me is by contrast quite direct and fragile, as if the music itself is experiencing an existential crisis, it’s muted and detached, as if showing a great amount of emotional restraint. There’s a bit of a journey that goes on throughout the album, the instrumentation builds in intensity until the second to last track, before tapering off at the last. The melodies are also nothing short of beautiful.
It’s abundantly clear that a fundamental schism has happened in Elverum’s life. I feel a great anxiety talking about the album on these terms, because while it is sad, it is also intensely private, I don’t want to seem presumptuous in my analysis. It is a work of art, a veritable titan of emotion; it will take you to a very dark place mentally if you allow it. Not that this is a particularly bad thing — I’ve been told it’s healthy to acknowledge and remember that death is a real thing every now and then. I think it’s a really cool thing that Elverum has shared these very private feeling of grief. The lyricism is very clearly full of love for this subject. A Crow Looked at Me has already courted comparisons to other sad works that deal with death in a particularly sincere way like Sufjan Steven’s Carrie and Lowell, Sun Kill Moon’s Benji, Bowie’s Blackstar and even Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series (not a Hitler thing— go read it). I can see what people are going for but I think it’s important for such works to stand on their own. Comparisons for such personal works of art can only ever be reductive to the respective experience, placing the art that deals with death inside this box of “art that deals with death”, in the process potentially making people reject each piece for being emotionally exploitative (it’s a thing, believe me). No, my friend let them breathe.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote on the Dresden catastrophe: “The Dresden atrocity… was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote [Slaughterhouse Five], which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.” One can’t help but keep that in mind whilst listening to A Crow Looked at Me. Elverum has stated in various interviews that he’s been thrust into this weird mind state where everybody is feeling for him and he’s grateful but at the same time he feels weird talking about it. Quote from track six ‘My Chasm’: “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife? Or does the room go silent when I mention you?”
It’s a difficult and uncomfortable situation and there are no clear right answers. I think the album is just as much for himself as it is for his fans. A Crow Looked at Me is ostensibly an obituary, and that is ok.
It’s a masterpiece is what I’m saying.
Words by Eamonn Kelly