By Sam Tornow, Editorial Director
[P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2017]
Key Tracks: “Real Death,” Seaweed,” “Swims,” “Crow”
“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,” Phil Elverum gently coos into a mic that is situated in the room where his wife died on July 9, 2016. The instruments being used belonged to her, the accordion is a Castrée heirloom. In the next room, Elverum’s daughter slept, oblivious to her father’s nightly breakdowns and cries into the material remnants left behind. A Crow Looked At Me is not an album for us. It is an album for Geneviève Castrée, handed to . . . somewhere, by a husband looking for answers.
Elverum has performed under the guise of The Microphones, and here as Mount Eerie. He’s an indie-rock hero, an inspiration for many artists in the late 2000s but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. On A Crow Looked At Me, the public persona is absent, and only the private, small-town life which Elverum has tried to hide is present: The packages Geneviève ordered, the conversations with his daughter, even the little fixer-upper the couple had bought to further seclude themselves is mentioned.
The album is a chronological account of grieving, starting with “Seaweed” taking place 11 days after the death, until 4 months prior on the final track “Crow”. In that time, there are no signs of the 7 stages of grief or even healing, only concrete statements stacked on top of another.
Understandably, much of A Crow Looked At Me involves the singer struggling to contextualize the potential bond between the physical world and whatever else might exist. “I can’t remember, were you into Canada geese? / Is it significant / These hundreds on the beach? / Or were they just hungry / For mid-migration seaweed?,” he questions on “Seaweed.” These ideas linger on in the form of the burning of the past by the annual forest fires, the ominous trails left by ravens and a barricade stopping Elverum and his daughter from continuing on a hiking trail. But these ideas seem to be nothing more than the grasping at straws, and Elverum doesn’t seem to care because, in a way, they’re as real as whatever he understands death to be.
As in past Mount Eerie releases, the instrumentation here is sparse, leaving the air open for the long-winded, almost spoken word-like lyrics. The guitar will barely hover in the mix, and the accordion asks only to be heard. In the rare occasion of a piano strike, it bellows and hangs in the barren space for several beats. Thus is the case with “Swims,” where the gentle keys echo as Elverum croons lengthy lines: “‘Today our daughter asked me if mama swims’ / I told her, ‘Yes, she does / And that’s probably all she does now.’/ What was you is now borne across waves evaporating’.” After a few minutes of these gentle lyrics being handed over, it starts to feel as if the listener is involved in a one-way conversation, a protracted venting session where the speaker wants nothing more than to be listened to.
Throughout the journey of this album, Elverum repeatedly refers to his wife as “you” so much so that it becomes no question as to who the pronoun is suggesting. But on the final track, “Crow,” the “you” as Geneviève is subtly switched to represent Elverum’s daughter. It’s the tiniest light in the album, and perhaps the only one; a change in perspective; a step back from the summer of 2016 and a look into a future as frightening as death; a new beginning.