On July 9th, 2016, Geneviève Castree Elverum died a little over a year after being diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. A poet, cartoonist, and musician, she had a rich 15-year career, recording music as Woelv & O Paon, as well as collaborating on multiple Mount Eerie records with her husband, Phil Elverum. Less than a year after her death, Phil Elverum has returned with a new album as Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me, an autobiographical chronicling of the months after her passing, written and recorded using her instruments. Similar to Nick Cave’s 2016 album, The Skeleton Tree, he has crafted a haunting examination of personal loss that confronts that grief head on.
From the onset, Elverum questions what he’s doing. “Real Death”, the opener and first single, finds him at his most broken, wondering about the purpose of art and poetry when someone you love is gone. It’s the profound sorrow of someone stuck in their head, turning to the only outlet they have, but finding it lacking. “I don’t want to learn anything from this,” he proclaims. With painful honesty, he directly confronts the uncomfortable nature of this project, but forges along. In a statement with the album, Elverum explained: “I made these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her.”
The framework of the album is a notable approach, as each song sequentially chronicles the passage of time, from the raw immediacy of “Real Death” to the record’s conclusion months later. There are no five stages or clean categorizations, but instead a slow journey to try and find meaning. Does the nearby forest fire represent a cleansing? Are the flowers and birds on the island representative of things Geneviève loved? These are the questions Elverum asks, searching for answers and realizing there might not be any.
Throughout a career that has spanned over two decades as both Mount Eerie and The Microphones, Elverum has been instrumental in shaping the landscape of current indie rock. From his early melancholic, lo-fi recordings through his more naturalistic and spiritual later work, he has always exuded deep empathy in his work. He’s never been afraid to expose himself, writing songs about anxiety and depression, but even he wasn’t prepared for the depths he had yet to mine. “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about back before I knew my way around these hospitals,” he says on “Emptiness pt. 2”. The pain Elverum feels this time is of a different nature, a sharper wound that drastically changes his frame of reference.
By serving as a largely real-time snapshot of working through his pain, Elverum spends much of the album focusing on the seemingly mundane details of his life. These simple moments of routine, taking the garbage outside, throwing away an old toothbrush, and shuttering the windows, are infused with profundity as they reveal how death shatters every aspect of life. He focuses on the minutia, the discomfort of well-meaning conversations with acquaintances, discarding of his wife’s clothing, the minutes that take their toll. On “Toothbrush/Trash”, he acknowledges that static pictures of his wife are starting to replace the lively memories in his head as time passes. By drilling down into these specific memories, his anguish becomes more relatable than had he been vague.
As the months go by and the record winds down, Elverum strives to find peace, looking back to his past. It’s not until the cathartic penultimate track, “Soria Moria”, that the signature Mount-Eerie electric distortion comes into play, albeit faintly. Therein, Elverum remembers the beginning of his relationship, working to bring things full circle. On “Crow”, the final track, the “you” he’s been referring to the whole time switches from his wife to their young daughter. The switch in the object of his verse carries tremendous weight, the first step towards the future.
“Death is real,” Elverum proclaims with his first three words on the record. This is a mantra he repeats, a sobering reminder to himself that his world has irreparably changed. In a letter, Elverum explained that this simple phrase could have been the name of the album, but that instead he wanted to focus on that small glimmer of hope. That’s why the last image he leaves the listener with is one of a crow watching him and his daughter on a walk through the woods. After spending months searching for a sign, Elverum found his sliver of peace to begin healing.
Through emphasizing that image, Elverum offers a way forward. Where the record opens with Elverum questioning the purpose of art in a time of loss, by the end he proves how it can help navigate tremendous tragedies. Not every album should carry that weight on its shoulders, and Elverum will hopefully never have to make one like this again. A Crow Looked at Me stands as a remarkable example of the restorative power of music, an intimate display of love, daring both in concept and execution. Overwhelming and humbling, Elverum’s revelatory work offers a blueprint for others going through similar situations in their own lives, a true testament to the power of art and a loving tribute to Geneviève.
Essential Tracks: “Real Death”, “Ravens”, “Toothbrush/Trash”, and “Soria Moria”