“Real Death”, a single from A Crow Looked at Me, is no ordinary Mount Eerie song. Though that’s not to say the song and the album it opens are without references to songwriter Phil Elverum’s copious body of work prior to this point. There is the melody with which he sings the phrase “the emptiness instead” and its allusion to other songs in his history, like “With My Hands Out” from Lost Wisdom (2008). And Lost Wisdom is the Mount Eerie album A Crow Looked at Me most corresponds to in its tone and lyrics and recording process. As an establishment of this album’s discrete premise, “Real Death” orients us to the singular purpose of the record, the limitless nature of its subject matter, as well as the limits of conventional music criticism when beholding such a thing as this.
A Crow Looked at Me is a retrospective documentary and diary, detailing the sickness and death of a beloved wife and mother to a baby. The lyrics of “Real Death” place the album somewhere beyond art, beyond critical assessment, concluding with “it’s dumb / and I don’t want to learn anything from this / I love you.” And yet this collection of songs exists, released to the world as a declaration of love, and informing the listener about the circumstances of love and loss between Elverum and his late wife Geneviève Castrée Elverum and their baby daughter.
And so the album is here. It’s real. There’s little worth in comparing it to any other pop song collection of love and loss because a diaristic remembrance of an individual life deserves more than generic categorization. Specificity is central to an album like this. “Seaweed” opens with “Our daughter is one and a half / You have been dead 11 days.” Throughout the album, Elverum associates precise dates and markers of time with poetic flourishes and quotidian details, all of which exist in a funereal description of a path to death and the way that death hangs over each day that follows.
Here the songwriter is simultaneously bound to a deathly calendar and aware of the infinity and eternity that contain it, a mystery he acknowledges on the devastating “Forest Fire”. His fixation with nature is more philosophically potent than ever, as in “Soria Moria”, which utilizes familiar Elverum imagery to work out one of the most vivid illustrations of Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura” that I’ve ever encountered. A Crow Looked at Me beholds an unrecoverable ideal and laments the distance that keeps it away and a path to death that is, by contrast, traversable.
On A Crow Looked at Me, photographs of the departed freeze in time a face that has faded. The singer’s face contorts. A package arrives from a mother no longer living. A father travels to a defeated home site with “our baby and the dust of your bones”. Elverum details his life in transformation, entirely transformed. In “Ravens”, not even the presence of his late wife’s ashes is sufficient to keep him from forgetting, for a moment, that she won’t return.
Again, it’s worth reiterating that the musical goings-on of A Crow Looked at Me are secondary to the album’s standing as an individual work revealing grief. As the guitars and keys and quiet drum machines point here and there to the Elverum of yesterday, pushing his sonic approach slightly ahead, the narration he shares over top of that music is that of a man changed by sorrow. In this respect A Crow Looked at Me is closer in spirit to C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed than it is any other folk/rock album. Two passages of Lewis’s writing resonate in these songs. One is a scene that Lewis, on the subject of his wife’s passing, portrays of the social dimensions of grief; those interactions that take place in public, beyond the private family or individual in mourning:
An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t…. To some, I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head.
Similarly, in “My Chasm”, Elverum characterizes his role in remembering his wife, a new role for which this album is one significant expression. The song opens with “I am a container of stories about you / And I bring you up, repeatedly, uninvited to.” His subsequent questions and statements about that sort of interaction reinforce the degree to which his wife’s absence is a presence that has redefined his life.
The other relevant passage of A Grief Observed is a question Lewis asks about the recurring realization of that absence: “How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’?” This is an inquiry that Elverum encounters and shares, as in the selection from “Ravens” described above, and in various ways throughout A Crow Looked at Me.
Additionally, that emptiness and the realization of it connect these songs to one of the songwriter’s longstanding themes, also now transformed into something more real. To his credit, Elverum openly reflects on how the emptiness that occupied so many of his earlier songs failed to address anything like “actual negation, when your person is gone”. He outlines this reality in “Emptiness pt. 2″, singing “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about, back before I knew my way around these hospitals.” This self-reflexive commentary reframes even the most powerful pictures of wind-hewn, frosted, blackened solitude in the past Microphones/Mount Eerie songbook as products of comparative comfort; luxuries of imagination.
For Microphones/Mount Eerie lifers, there is no hearing A Crow Looked at Me apart from those earlier works. There is now the possibility that Elverum’s life of songs will be received as prefiguring this moment that is more significant, more real, than what came before. But A Crow Looked at Me needn’t be a shadow that reaches backward to cover its musical ancestry. There is also the possibility to bring older ideas forward into the grief.
For me, the two most evocative phrases in Elverum’s output are “I know you’re out there” from the song “Solar System”, particularly in the communal version on Live in Copenhagen (2004), and “I will find you,” from “In Moonlight”, specifically the wild and overwhelming version of the song that appears on Black Wooden Ceiling Opening (2008). Elverum the songwriter of A Crow Looked at Me, the grieving husband, the man with the baby daughter, says he doesn’t want to learn anything from his wife’s death. And that wish must be respected. The appropriate reaction to an album like this is not to tell the singer what the listener thinks he needs to hear, but rather to listen to what he clearly needs to express. Yet as I listen to his present questions for infinity and his description of the void, I can still hear him singing “I will find you” and “I know you’re out there” — quiet echoes on loud wind.
A Crow Looked at Me asks me to examine my own reaction to its content. Do I want to hear hope where the singer feels none? Am I hoping he learns something that will negate the void even as he says he doesn’t want to learn? This kind of interaction is a distinct function of works of art that express the subject of loss. A final non-musical point of comparison is the painting “She Will Find What is Lost” by Brian Kershisnik. A few years ago, Kershisnik was compelled to release a statement about the painting in reaction to the narratives that were accumulating around the work and its astonishing portrayal of loss and consolation. He wrote,
The circumstances that drove me into this piece are, as usual, particular and personal and not necessarily needed to have a personal reaction and use for this piece yourself…. I do believe that in art, very often that which is most personal taps into currents that are most general. In this way, great art of the distant past can continue to inform and illuminate very current issues. Finding these “big subjects” involves a kind of dumb luck and often has little or nothing to do with an artist’s conscious intention.
A Crow Looked at Me is a masterpiece in the manner of A Grief Observed and “She Will Find What is Lost”. All of these works create a special communion between creator and observer, artistic experiences that join individual circumstances of loss with whatever the listener/reader/viewer brings to the work. But these are not mere containers for our projections. They prepare us for times to weep and mourn, which will surely come. They focus us on questions about death, which as Elverum observes “is not natural”, and love and life, which are natural and also real. These works of art help us to examine life and death, even as the questions wound. Lewis asks, “Come, what do we gain by evasions?” Elverum echoes, “Death is real.”