A CROW LOOKED AT ME by Mount Eerie
Genre: Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Favorite Tracks: “Seaweed,” “Soria Moria,” “When I Take out the Garbage at Night”
In a New York Times profile, comedian Patton Oswalt had this to say about his mental state after the passing of his wife in April 2016: “Depression is more seductive. Its tool is: ‘Wouldn’t it be way more comfortable to stay inside and not deal with people?’ Grief is an attack on life. It’s not a seducer. It’s an ambush or worse. It stands right out there and says: ‘The minute you try something, I’m waiting for you.’”
Oswalt’s stand-up, op-eds and tweets have been tackling grief head on, and it’s just one of several very public sessions of mourning we’ve seen play out recently. Nick Cave delivered us the harrowing SKELETON TREE, a very thoughtful and intimate dedication of memories regarding the passing of his son. David Bowie’s BLACKSTAR was itself a self-created epilogue for an artist knowing his days were finite. And the entire TV tour (and likely the upcoming real tour) for A Tribe Called Quest has been a slow moving exercise in honoring and respecting legacy.
This all leads me to the passing of another public figure: Phil Elverum’s wife, Genevieve. In July of 2016, her passing was reported on by most music outlets as her struggle with cancer had been covered, but mostly in a battle that was done quietly and out of the limelight. And Phil Elverum’s pain was dealt with in the shadows, so to speak, out of view of the rest of the world.
Quickly after her passing, Elverum picked up Genevive’s instruments and began to channel that pain into music in the very room she had passed away in. It wasn’t the Grammy’s or a big art rock record, but just peak suffering being channeled into art. This would later become Elverum’s new album under his Mount Eerie moniker, A CROW LOOKED AT ME, but I’m still hesitant to say this album is really ours. The album is messy. It’s filled with authentic flaws and jarringly disconnected production, the work of someone who isn’t all that focused on making the music sound perfect. While his previous work under Mount Eerie has featured electronic-leaning folk music, this album is sparse with instrumentation, often only featuring only an acoustic guitar or a piano. There’s a stress and an agony ringing in that sound. And while Mount Eerie’s previous projects featured a particular looseness to their design, it was done so intentionally. Elverum’s pain is captured out of sheer necessity, his words being put to music out of force rather than through organic instinct.
While Oswalt’s description of depression and grief is on point, it also would imply that it’s an attack on art. As Elverum says in the first lines: “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.” That’s what makes A CROW LOOKED AT ME such a fascinating record. While the other forms of grieving mentioned enhanced or molded the art that came out of the other side, A CROW LOOKED AT ME is the reverse of that, an album where the art molded the grieving.
All of this, naturally, is very uncomfortable. The album’s messiness is only a further reminder of how difficult it likely was to record. Take a song like “When I Take Out The Garbage At Night,” where Elverum admits that even taking out the trash is difficult because it requires walking back to the house and seeing the “big empty room on the second floor” with its “dark window of the room you died in.” Or “Soria Moria,” where Elverum spends an aching six minutes reminiscing about trying to find happiness amidst Genevive’s moments on chemotherapy.
A CROW LOOKED AT ME is one of the most profound and personal looks at suffering I’ve ever heard or seen, and it never once feels contrived because it never once feels like we’re supposed to be hearing it at all. I’ve never lost anyone to cancer and I can’t possibly imagine what that kind of prolonged suffering could be like, but Elverum paints such a vivid picture of that fall out I can’t help but feel like I was there in that room with him. From throwing out her toothbrush and “dried out, bloody, end-of-life tissues” on “Toothbrush/Trash,” to smelling the asphalt truck drive by the house, amidst a fading light filled with forest fire smoke on “Forest Fire,” each detail furthers our connection to both Genevive and Elverum’s relationship with her.
This is a rewarding listen; it may not reveal any universal truths about grief and death, but in the details of Elverum’s personal truths are a woman’s legacy and her love. I’d love to say this album is for everyone, because it’s a special project with very few contemporaries, but it’s not. Death, just as art, is sometimes hard to accept, and A CROW LOOKED AT ME perfectly captures the heartache of that acceptance.