Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me
Phil Elverum’s music, first as The Microphones, and later as Mount Eerie, has always carried with it a robust sense of place. Largely pioneering the extent to which DIY music can confront its limitations to create an atmosphere. The production of these albums is often chilly and remote, compounded by lyrics that fearlessly tread into the existential, and of course, describe gloomy and desolate locales. Choosing to become immersed in a Mount Eerie record requires a willingness to expose oneself to the elements. However, A Crow Looked at Me contains such a staggering depth of emotional vulnerability that when it enters you into Elverum’s space, you get the sense that you are playing voyeur to something not meant for you.
In July 2016, Elverum’s wife Geneviève died following a tragic and brief battle with pancreatic cancer. 10 days later, Elverum began to reconcile his emotions surrounding this tragedy by writing songs about her death, its aftermath, and how their 1-year-old daughter will be shaped by it all. A Crow Looked at Me is an aggressively to-the-point meditation on grieving that may be as much for Phil Elverum as it is any of us. Here is our discussion:
T: What are your initial impressions of the album so far?
A: I've been really struck by the concrete sense of place. It's not uncommon for us to associate singer-songwriters with specific locales, such as Lou Reed's NYC or Sufjan’s themed tributes to specific places or objects, but there's a different kind of claustrophobia at play here. You can't really listen to an album like this without grappling with the twin questions of "who is this for?" and "how am I supposed to interact with, let alone judge, something this personal?" In that regard, I think Elverum offers up a decisive counterpoint in his admission at the beginning of the album that death is both very real, and not an experience undertaken for the purpose of "art" as some sort of romanticized morality play.
T: Exactly right. Elverum's work in the past has typically taken on an "arty" quality - places or introspections are evoked - whereas, with this album, little space is left for metaphor. There’s that telling lyric about how he used to write about emptiness as a vague concept, but has now discovered what that feeling can truly be. I remember when Phil announced that he would be playing a set of new music that would center around Geneviève's death, thinking, "how does someone translate their grief like this?" Turns out they don't. They just grieve.
A: I was particularly taken with these diaristic elements, which remind me at times of the pastoral stillness of Bill Callahan, but impacted me more urgently due to the subject matter. That same sense of space, and the way we hover as listeners over these songs and their dates, geographic details, and slowly piece together the shared history of the lovers in "Soria Moria", lends the experience a context that, if not entirely satisfying, subtly expands our understanding of the tiny family structure we have intruded on.
T: I love your phrasing of “tiny family structures we have intruded on”, but it’s also these structures as Phil remembers them and the lack of structure that makes the album so genuinely difficult to listen to. You also mention it’s diaristic elements, and it’s actually comforting that this work is collapsed into 42 minutes, because I don’t think I could partake in a more comprehensive exploration of grief than this and serve as a comfortable bystander. Phil singing, “I missed you of course” on “Forest Fire” alone is enough to break down – I held it together until that line. This is simply not an album I will return to often because it accomplishes, I guess, what it is meant to.
A: For me, the moment was "Swim". In a simple conversation with his daughter, who remains unnamed throughout the album, Phil is asked "if mama swims". It is one of many conversations Phil will inevitably have regarding his wife as their daughter grows and begins questioning the narrative of the person she never got to know. But his clear answer "yes, she does / and that's probably all she does / now" finds a miraculous, heart-wrenching balance to the sweetness and sheer impossibility of explaining death to a child. These moments show up innocuously throughout the record, from the backpack that arrives just a week after Phil's wife passes in "Death is Real", to his own embarrassment at giving her clothes away in "Ravens", and even having to close "the windows and doors without you coming through" in "Forest Fire". Here is an album that not only tells you Death Is Real, but draws you into the reality of that process.
T: As you noted, this is something you subject yourself to in order to find truth, not catharsis, and definitely not entertainment. There is no clever resolve or lesson to be had, just Phil’s experience. It reminds me of how Patton Oswalt is currently touring a stand up comedy set about the recent death of his wife. Anyone who understands the context of the performance is not expecting to laugh or enjoy the evening, they’re going to listen to Patton’s story and reconciliation process and perhaps, through their role as an audience member, find a way to reconcile their own traumas.
As far as the album’s structure goes, given the signposts throughout that indicate how many days away from his wife’s death Phil wrote these pieces, it appears to unfold chronologically. However, there is not too much in the way of an arc to the album as Phil seems to wander through every stage of grief at once. Sure, Phil knowingly sets the stage with “Real Death” and those brute force opening lines and finds a semblance of hope with the tail end of “Crow”, but as you sort of mentioned before, the structure is built more around the space than anything. We’re hit with the line “death is real” pretty constantly, which is about as much progress as one can make so close to the experience.
A: You mention that the narrative seems to unfold more or less chronologically, and certainly Phil does take a number of moments, as in the reluctant admission on "Toothbrush / Trash" that "I just felt it for the first time today / 3 months and day after you died". In reality, however, the album has a far more knotted relationship with the passage of time than might seem immediately obvious. "Raven", clocking in at over 6 minutes, is one of the longest tracks on the album, and exemplifies this loose relationship to time. Phil takes us back to 2015 to examine a moment of transcendence when "two ravens, but only two" appear to him as harbingers of sudden change. Even within that track, though, we flip forward to "next October", to a trip to the Haida Gwaii Islands and, in an Inception worthy moment of layers-deep storytelling, Phil reveals that he has returned to the place where, "childless, we could blanket ourselves there / for our long lives / but when we came home you were pregnant". In the midst of all this anguish is a striking origin story. Moments like this capture the pure rush of ideas, feelings, and moments in time collapsing on each other as grief, or simply as the noise and connections we create to make sense of our own loss.
Likewise, "Forest Fire" initially struck me as a placid observation of natural events, particularly given the fact that most of the track finds Phil focusing on the domestic passage of time. In reality, just as Phil himself is constantly oscillating between myriad feelings and moments in life, it became clear to me that the "sound of helicopters and smell of smoke" or the "smell and roar of the asphalt truck" also signal a potent environmental collapse, particularly for the new life Phil is now, alone, tasked with protecting. While the nature of the events creates little breathing room for the outside world, Phil is finally forced to reckon with it on album closer, "Crow", as he confronts the question - "sweet kid, what is this world we're giving you?" His answer, "smoldering and fascist", punctures any navel-gazing critiques that suggest grief swirls in a vacuum. Death is real. So is Trump's America. The only reconcilable choice, then, is to look for moments of magic and inspiration that signal our loved ones love on with us.
T: A reason I thought this would be an interesting album to sort through with you is because I know you have created some work centered on your own similar experiences. I’m interested to know what your initial motive was when writing? What you expected from your audience? Also, how this album maybe might have struck you differently because of that?
A: Having lost my own father while working on a story about the relationship between my parents, and ultimately deciding to finish it and later perform it in the Forensics community, Phil's lines regarding the whole situation being "dumb" or that he doesn't want to "learn anything from it” resonated with me deeply. When I performed that piece about my father, when I relived the moment of his death with others, and saw their reactions, it did nothing to resolve the daily anguish I felt in the aftermath of his loss. But it did give me a way of being aware of his presence in the world and helped me make meaning without him. Once, before a performance, I stood in a bathroom with the book in my arms that contained the story I'd written about him and cried and cried and felt closer to him than I had in the years before he died. Telling the story did not change what he did. But I realized in that moment that grief is not a flat circle and there are an endless number of spaces each day it may occupy. There are also spaces of wonder, and bewilderment, that like death are every bit as real. The magic of "Crow" is not that Geneviève is a crow, a black bird, a raven, but that Phil and his daughter continue to feel her presence. Even for a fleeting moment, her name and memory echo throughout our chaotic world.
Let me tell you my own story. Once, while hiking the Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania, I was coming down from a mountain into Delaware Water Gap. The sun was setting and, for whatever reason, I found myself all alone on the descent into town. Just before I arrived, blistered and bruised and at twilight, I came upon a tiny pond. There, a fawn sat sipping from the water. I stood and expected it to run. I walked past slowly, its eyes following me. I walked back. We stood for a few minutes and looked at each other before, finally, the deer turned its head and ran away. And there he was.