Sometimes the best music has the worst of inspirations. Kurt Cobain drew must of the emotion of his music from the terrible stomach pain he experienced. Elton John wrote “Candle in the Wind” after Princess Diana’s tragic death. Musician Phil Elverum has channelled the emotion from his wife’s death into his new album, A Crow Looked At Me. In the GoFundMe page created to pay for his wife’s medical bills, Elverum broke the news.
“Geneviève died today at 1pm,” Elverum wrote. “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.”
A Crow Looked at Me is the eighth release of Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum’s solo project. Written two months after the his wife succumbed to Stage Four pancreatic cancer, it is a statement about emptiness—the vacuum left by the death of a loved one. Every inch of this album is fueled by that notion and is brought out in Elverum’s ability to convey feeling through sound. This reality is repeatedly captured in Elverum’s poetic and emotionally stirring lines. Its simple acoustics, which adorn every song, reinforce a sense of raw grief and anguish. “Real Death” provides a good example of these lyrical craftings with “When real death enters the house / all poetry is dumb / When I walk into the room where you were / And look into the emptiness instead / All fails.”
A Crow Looked at Me wonders how to live after the death of a loved one. It navigates through the desperate questions and the hopeless lamentation of someone grieving, with powerful and devastating answers and consolations. Elverum’s lyrics are sincere and powerful, and they lead us through the episodes of his new life as Castrée’s widow and his motherless daughter’s father. The songs are arranged in a way that they portray Everum’s transformation and his situation in his new place in the world.
“Real Death,” the record’s opener, is about the hopelessness that comes after the death (“It’s dumb / And I don’t want to learn anything from this”). Its lyrics’ accuracy and earnestness strike as melancholically familiar to anyone. “Seaweed” and “Ravens” are reflections on her memory, and her tragic death. In “Forest Fire,” Elverum starts to ask himself how to live without his wife, only to go back to lamenting in “Swims”.
In “Swims,” Elverum talks about his daughter, a character present in all of “A Crow Looked at Me”—“Today our daughter asked me if mama swims / I told her, ‘Yes, she does / And that’s probably all she does / Now.’” In the album, Elverum shows no desperation in fatherhood without his partner. Even if his words to his daughter are all of frank lamentation, he never speaks about resignation. Instead, he accepts they are left in the world alone, and that all they have is each other.
The interesting choice of the crow, as if a harbinger of death, is brought up in the song bearing its name. In “Crow,” he wonders, “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you? / Smoldering and fascist with no mother / Are you dreaming about a crow?” He narrates a hiking trip to a hill above a lake, where he hears his daughter say the word “crow” in her sleep. This track adopts that notion of anguish and loss, but also a sort of sinister resentment of death.
Reaching out to listeners who share his pain, Elverum speak about his role as a widower, and how others relate to it in “My Chasm.” He describes himself as a “a container of stories” about his dead wife, and mentions he now wields “the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion” and “mutual aching to leave.” “When I Take Out the Garbage at Night” and “Toothbrush/Trash” talk about the mundane episodes that cannot but remember Elverum of his wife’s absence.
“Emptiness Pt. 2” introduces listeners to the mountains, a place that Elverum finds interesting to return to in many of the songs. He describes his journey through grief as climbing up a mountain in complete loneliness: “The feeling of being in the mountains / Is a dream of self-negation / To see the world without us / How it churns and blossoms / Without anyone looking on.” The penultimate song, “Soria Moria”, also follows this theme. Soria Moria is the name of a painting Elverum saw in a museum in Oslo, Norway, where a kid looks to a castle across a canyon. To Elverum, Soria Moria is possible exit to his grief, “Soria Moria is a real traversable space / I’m an arrow now / Mid-air.”
Elverum’s words are sung in whispers, and are accompanied by little more than his acoustic guitar and a piano. Recorded in the home shared with his wife, the record replicates the lo-fi sound habitual to Mount Eerie, but in a much somber light—the organic, percussion-less sound gives it the ambience of solitude and melancholy it aims for. The weak and shy vocals show us an artist that is completely consumed by a cruel, unforgiving world. A Crow Looked at Me is a powerful album that shows us Elverum in his most vulnerable light, as someone trying to float in the immensity of loss.
Featured Image by P.W. Elverum & Sun