A Crow Looked At Me
Emotional torture. Tragedy through sound. Musical devastation. While all of these ring true to what Phil Elverum is putting forward on his newest full-length record under the Mount Eerie alias, none of these descriptions are able to truly encapsulate the impact of the music. The album details the passing of the singer-songwriter's wife Genieve, and while released over half a year after her death, seems to have been recorded only mere weeks after his loss.
The raw, lo-fi, delivery has become a trademark of Phil's music, whether under the Mount Eerie name or his previous project the Microphones. Never before, however, has it felt so real. With minimal musical accompaniment, Phil embarks on a quest without a destination. We may follow the story from the singer's perspective, but there is no definitive start or finish to his experience.
From the opening track Real Death, which opens with the gut-wrenchingly powerful
"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"
to the closing track Crow, which finishes with the powerful final line of
"And there she [Genieve] was."
In a lot of ways it's hard for me to put myself in Phil's shoes, being that I have been forced to deal with death very few times in my life, and never have I had to see a loved one suffer in the way that he was forced to watch his wife struggle in her fight with cancer. Yet because of the waves of crushing lyricism, the sombre guitar work, and the always feeble presence of Phil's voice, I feel myself momentarily put into his position. Left alone with his daughter, his wife's passing still constantly on his brain and with every thing he does, be it entering a specific room in his house, or driving down a dirt road, being reminded of the woman he loved.
I am just as perplexed as I am sad when I listen to this album though, because it is truly remarkable how Phil manages to paint this image of his wife as such a strong and wonderful soul, while contrasting that with his fear of mortality and the ugliness of death. Take for example the lyrics of the track Swims, one of the more emotionally heavy cuts from the album.
I can't get the image out of my head
Of when I held you right there
And watched you die
Upstairs in the back bedroom of our house
Where we have lived for many years
Your last gasping breaths
I see it again and again
Powerful, right? Yet this is powerful in its representation of weakness, her last breath, her dying state, her last moments. As the song comes to a close though, we see her presented in an entirely different light.
Today our daughter asked me if mama swims
I told her, "Yes, she does
And that's probably all she does
What was you is now borne across waves
As you can see, Phil's description of his wife after her passing is much more abstract, and poetic in a sense, than her final days. While it is clear that he was devastated by the loss, it seems that what really hit him the hardest was seeing her in this position of weakness, unable to fight against the cancer.
Again, this is shown in Emptiness Pt.2
Her absence is a scream
Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about
Back before I knew my way around these hospitals
I would like to forget and go back into imagining
I have no doubts that this album will not only go down as one of the best of the year and one of the best Phil has ever released, but this album also has potential to go down as one of the most devastating musical experiences. Whether you are a fan of Phil's catalogue or not, it is most definitely worthwhile checking this release out, if for no other reason than to experience loss through someone else's perspective. It will make you uncomfortable, sad, and fearing your own mortality, and I think that's exactly what makes it such a unique experience.
Check out one of the album's singles Ravens here, and get your kleenex ready.