A Crow Looked at Me – Mount Eerie
By Michael McKinney
“Geneviève died today at 1pm.
She was truly driven to work and stay living right up to the last minute, insisting on getting up and going to work in her studio way beyond when many would have surrendered to rest.
Last night and this morning she declined quickly and receded into her own eyes as her body vetoed her wishes, her lungs filling with fluid. She died at home with me and her parents holding her, hopefully having reached some last minute peace.
It’s all very sad and surreal. So much is left unfinished for her. She was a firehose of brilliant ideas that never turned off.
We loved her and everything is weird now.
Thank you for all the money, all the support and love.
Phil Elverum wrote A Crow Looked at Me after Geneviève Castrée – his wife of thirteen years, a fellow artist, a mother of their daughter – died of pancreatic cancer. It was recorded in her room, played with her instruments, written on her paper. It is, by all accounts, an album about death – about watching someone disintegrate, changing from a vital and energetic force to a jar of ashes. Elverum doesn’t try to offer any answers or solutions. Looked at in a certain light, it’s a morbid, heart-wrenching, and hopeless listen.
And that read’s certainly valid: these songs are consistently stripped-back compared to his previous work, and his lyrics lay things bare rather than playing with metaphor or deeper meaning. Even when he does search for greater significance – as he does in “Seaweed,” or “Ravens” – it’s with the overpowering feeling that he’s desperately linking things that, ultimately, mean nothing. Whereas he previously found cleansing power in nature (examples, both from previous-alias opus The Glow Pt. 2: “I Want the Wind to Blow;” “I Want to be Cold”), here he can’t keep Castrée’s memory out, twisting this power in ways that confuse rather than comfort: “I knew these birds were omens but of what I wasn’t sure / They were flying out toward the island where we hoped to move.”
Some of the record’s hardest-hitting moments, though, are its most straightforward: “I missed you, of course / And I remember thinking the last time it rained here you were alive still.” Elverum, as mentioned, is incredibly direct here; it often feels like he’s gone out of his way to avoid glorifying tragedy. “Death is real” comes up a few times, with various levels of intensity; at its peak, he’s grabbing you and making you look him in the eyes and listen to him. This isn’t a poetic device but instead a force of nature, he seems to be saying, something to be reckoned with and understood in the plainest possible terms.
These are songs that talk about moments, about the tiniest of triggers for the heaviest of memories. He holds on to her trash because it “want[s] just to stay with us,” and gets flooded with her memory when he finally takes it out. He gets a backpack in the mail, a package with her name on it for their daughter when she grows up, and wails on the front step. He realizes the ways they filled each other’s lives, the way she sang on the stairs, the plans they’d made, the flowers she liked. A Crow Looked at Me manages to make the banality of life possess a real emotional heft – the underwear, the tissues, the toothbrushes.
This weight isn’t solely in Elverum’s voice, though. The melodies here form slowly and unspool in unexpected ways, revealing themselves with time and avoiding immediacy. This doesn’t feel like a purposeful dodge, however; instead, the words drive the compositions so completely that they’ll take quiet left turns to accommodate a particularly wordy phrase. Instrumentation is buried deep into the mix, with few exceptions – muffled drum pats and spare guitar strums form the backbone here, making even a piano’s entry seem monumental.
Small details flesh it out, of course; looking at the first three tracks alone, there’s the hiss-patter of the drums on “Real Death,” the push-pull of the guitar in “Ravens,” and the dissonant piano on “Seaweed.” Every track, simply put, has some sort of sonic detail worth grabbing on to, no matter how subtle. The result of this is a gorgeous accompaniment to Elverum’s singing, both in melody and in theme; some of the record’s best moments are driven by a piano that’s not quite in tune, or a guitar that’s a bit too loud, or drums that are a bit too quiet. Both the melodies and backgrounds are dreary and beautiful, expertly walking the tightrope between backgrounding itself and overplaying its hand.
So, in A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum takes an unflinching look at tragedy; he documents every scar here, and it can hurt to listen to. But the album isn’t just about death, really. That’s too human of a topic, too intertwined with life; one cannot exist without the other, after all. At some point over the course of the record, a different message appears: hold your loved ones close, for you don’t know when your – their – luck will run out. This album serves both as a testament to the life-affirming power of love and a stark warning of the death’s power to take things away. Maybe the most remarkable thing about A Crow Looked at Me – and there’s a lot there – is simply that it exists, no matter how terrible its genesis. Elverum’s heart shines through, a force as powerful as the topics he’s singing about. As he puts it, in a line both beautiful and awful, exhilarating and exhausting, love-filled and grief-stricken:
“We are always so close to not existing at all.”’
“Then on July 9th 2016 she died at home and I belonged to nobody anymore. My internal moments felt like public property. The idea that I could have a self or personal preferences or songs eroded down into an absurd old idea leftover from a more self-indulgent time before I was a hospital-driver, a caregiver, a child-raiser, a griever. I am open now, and these songs poured out quickly in the fall, watching the days grey over and watching the neighbors across the alley tear down and rebuild their house. I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known.
“Death Is Real” could be the name of this album. These cold mechanics of sickness and loss are real and inescapable, and can bring an alienating, detached sharpness. But it is not the thing I want to remember. A crow did look at me. There is an echo of Geneviève that still rings, a reminder of the love and infinity beneath all of this obliteration. That’s why.”
Recommended if you like: The Microphones, Sufjan Stevens
Favorite Tracks: 2, 3, 4