Album Review: Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me

First, an aside:

For the last, like, four or five years, I’ve been operating with a bit of a negative impression of Phil Elverum due to a misunderstanding on my part; a misunderstanding that, with just a few minutes of Googling, I think I was able to clear up.

At the end of 2012, Elverum was featured in a ‘year end’ piece in Under The Radar magazine, giving rather blunt and surprising answers to rather banal questions, some of which involved discussion of a rocky marriage, infidelity, and “questions of paternity” of a newborn child. At the time, after reading it, I thought, “Man, this dude is kind of a prick.”

Cut to summer 2016, when Elverum announced that his wife, Geneviève Castrée, had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and that the couple (and their young child) were seeking donations to assist with the medical bills that were beginning to pile up.

Upon reading this story, given what I was thinking about Elverum, I was a little like, “Yes, that is too bad that his wife is ill, but the dude seems like he was a dick to her, so why should we feel bad about this?”

About six weeks after the story about the couple seeking financial assistance, Castrée passed away, and Elverum—a widower and single parent—spent the rest of 2016 constructing what would become his most recent effort under the Mount Eerie moniker, A Crow Looked at Me.

Before really sitting down with Crow, and diving into its bottomless grief and heartbreak, I wanted answers; I wanted to know how Elverum could trash his wife in the press like thst, and then be so distraught in her death that he would make this record.

With a little bit of searching, I found a Mount Eerie fan forum, and an old thread dedicated to the Under The Radar piece. A lot of the comments are regarding Elverum’s sense of humor and fondness for satire, and eventually someone claims to have spoken to him in New Zealand, going on to explain that the questions were emailed to Elverum, he emailed them to a friend outside the band, this friend—Jason Anderson—wrote these answers, sent them back, and Elverum sent them in as if they were his own.

Finding this out makes me feel a little better, but also a little worse—better for understanding that Phil Elverum probably isn’t a piece of shit as a person, but worse for thinking that he was a piece of shit because of a joke I didn’t get.

Death is real

Those are the first words Elverum speaks on A Crow Looked at Me, an eleven song meditation on his wife’s passing; an intense, exhausting, fragile, and personal experience.

It seems like stating the obvious, though, doesn’t it? “Death is real.” Of course it is real. But unless death has touched you, then it’s just an abstract concept. Until you actually know death, you don’t really understand just how fucking real it actually is—and, specifically, what comes after it.

What you don’t get, unless you’ve experienced it, is the surreal feeling when someone is suddenly gone. Like, they are there, and then in the next moment, they aren’t, and all that is left is an awful deafening silence and never ending painful reminders.

Recorded in the room where Castrée died, using her musical instruments and equipment, and writing the lyrics out on her paper, A Crow Looked at Me documents days becoming weeks and weeks becoming months, and Elverum’s immediate thoughts and struggles in the wake of his wife’s passing. It is the sound of a husband and father attempting to come to terms with an unspeakable loss; it is the sound of someone barely able to keep it together.

A Crow Looked at Me makes Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree seem tame, accessible, and uplifting.

In interviews, Elverum refers to Crow as “barely music,” which is an accurate assessment. While previous Mount Eerie releases found him blurring lines between lo-fi, folk, and black metal, here the music is an afterthought and song structure doesn’t even really exist. Chintzy drum machines, strummed electric guitars, echoing pianos, and haunted acoustic guitars are all simply present so that something is there while he gathers his thoughts. The obvious focus is on the words—there are no verses or refrains. It’s just his words, not even sung, really; more spoken, and spilling out with a sickening urgency, telling his story to anyone willing to listen.

Crow is, as expected, mortifyingly personal and honest. It shares the kind of moments no one should be privy to, and it’s admirable that this is the form his grief took—to set his pain to minimal accompaniment, and lay it all on the table without batting an eyelash at what people will think of it. Throughout the album’s course you follow Elverum during his day to day life: he still receives Castrée’s mail, he scatters her ashes, he gets rid of her clothing, he ruminates on mortality and the now unknown and terrifying future he faces without her.

Due to the structure and nature of Crow, nearly all of these pieces come to an incredibly abrupt end, with Elverum uttering one last line before the music stops. It’s a technique that takes some time to get used to, but it works. It makes sense for what this album is, and what it’s about. There’s no reason to pad these songs with music that fades out, or bringing things to a grand conclusion. He has said what he needed to say, and then he stops.

It is also an album of ideas, or phrases, that are returned to—specifically “death is real.” Elverum uses the expression throughout, and it is most difficult to hear him yelp it at the end of “My Chasm,” where it sounds like he is on the verge of losing it as the song stops.

I think it goes without saying that A Crow Looked at Me is a difficult, challenging, and devastating listen. Yes, it’s only eleven songs, but it’s not an easy eleven songs to make it through in one sitting. The farthest I got during my first listen was to track nine, “Toothbrush/Trash,” but I had to shut it off when Elverum started talking about throwing out Castrée’s “bloody, end of life tissues.”

I also think it goes without saying that this isn’t the kind of album you put on when you’re driving around in the car doing errands, or doing chores at home. This isn’t a feel good album. But, as Elverum reminds us countless times throughout, death is real, and I know there’s no good time to think about it or to talk about it, but it’s a very real thing that will touch us all.

So if you can’t talk about it now, when can you?

Crow ends with what serves as a titular track—a short reflection on a dreamlike morning spent with his young daughter in the forest, bringing the album to a somewhat stark (and of course, abrupt) conclusion. Like life, and like a life cut short, there is no resolution, and there are no easy answers when the album is over.

Death is real. It’s a late night phone call in a darkened house. It’s a doctor coming back into the room, eyes already shrink wrapped in tears. It’s the body of a missing person, found in the woods. It’s a slow, painful spiral until there’s nothing left and you force yourself to let go. It's a life that hasn't even begun yet. 

A Crow Looked at Me is an album I will probably never want to listen to again, but for everyone, it is an album that is worth listening to and experiencing at least once.

A Crow Looked at Me is out now on LP and as a digital download, via Elverum's own P.W. Elverum & Sun, LTD label. A Japanese CD pressing will be available in April.