“A Crow Looked At Me” is a masterpiece, but one that I wish didn’t have to exist. On 9 July 2016, Geneviéve Castrée, singer of Ô Paon and author of graphic memoir, "Susceptible," was killed by pancreatic cancer. She left behind her husband of thirteen years and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Her husband, now a young widower and single parent, did the one thing he could to impede the sorrow: write and record the album, “A Crow Looked At Me,” which stands as an incredible monument to their love.
Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie, The Microphones) is best known for his 2001 magnum opus, “The Glow, Pt. 2,” a lush, mysterious artifact which once won online magazine Pitchfork’s coveted Album of the Year title. But this latest release strips Elverum of his enormous musical and lyrical vocabulary. Gone are the rhyme schemes, the held out harmonies, the flurry of distorted guitars and church hall reverb. Also gone are the usual large metaphors for death and decay, the transcendentalist treatises on the weather, mountains, streetlights or the Solar System. Instead we have something here that is often hardly music, as if emaciated from experience.
Skeletal and bare, the guitars in “A Crow...” are faint, the piano distant, vocals weak and trembling. Elverum’s delivery is close to spoken word – unrhyming and explanatory like a secret voice memo. The production is sparse, recorded on Geneviéve’s instruments at night in the room where she died, softly, as to not wake up their daughter. There is an intentional incompleteness to this record. It is a moment of trauma captured in raw stasis, as if bottled suspended in the air.
This departure of style is so dramatic that Elverum even considered changing Mount Eerie’s name. Unlike his previous warm and expansive catalogue of work, “A Crow Looked at Me” is cold and stripped down to its barest elements. This is not pretty music, particularly for an artist distinguished for his enveloping soundscapes. Death is not a pretty subject. As Elverum sings in the album’s opening song, “It’s not for making into art.”
Yet, there are still moments of beauty that couldn’t have come from any other musician. In “Ravens,” the staggered finger-picking of panned guitars becomes instantly familiar to any Elverum fan. “Real Death” and “My Chasm” utilize quiet drum machines, mimicking the sound of hospital machinery with devastating effect. One of the highlights of the album, “Soria Moria,” is a gorgeous, haunting epic, recounting years of formative history before stretching outwards into a difficult infinity. At one incisive moment in the song, Elverum calls back to a familiar line from “The Glow, Pt. 2.” The result is gut-wrenching.
Most of this album, however, is in its words. “A Crow Looked at Me” reads like a diary left open on a park bench, documenting the ferociously numb passage of grief. Listening to it can feel like an act of voyeurism. Elverum, who once sang about abstract concepts in symbols and large metaphors, now directs his language in a way that is both blunt and confessional. In “Emptiness Pt. 2,” Elverum explains this change, saying that “conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about / back before I knew my way around these hospitals.”
Like any diary, “A Crow Looked at Me” is comprised of dates and memories, starting with the epicenter of the indescribable wound, from caregiver of two onto witnessing to his wife’s final breaths. We experience the following months of Elverum’s life through micro-narratives and domestic details, from giving away Geneviéve’s clothes, taking out the last of her trash, adjusting to his new life as a single parent, to wishing that people could witness his pain in the grocery store isle. He notes the terrible irony of their grief counselor dying just two months after Geneviéve, “her empty office with no light on / as if her work was done.”
Elverum records these narratives unflinchingly as the universe carries on irrespective of death. In “Seaweed,” he sings:
Our daughter is one-and-a-half.
You have been dead 11 days.
I got on the boat and came to the place.
Where the three of us were going to build our house if you had lived.
You died though.
Try as you might, the thin veneer of music in this album makes it impossible to ignore any of his words. These vignettes are so brutal that many may find it difficult to listen to outside of small doses, if at all. Unlike other artists who write about death, Elverum refuses to package the violence in metaphor. Nowhere in “A Crow...” does he search for closure or reason, lest it justify his savage loss. The result is a depiction of grief that is incredibly disturbing, if not straight up painful. In the debate between “entertainment” versus “art,” this is neither. This is, instead, “life.”
Comparable to verbatim theater, “A Crow Looked at Me” is more documentary than it is music, and, in that sense, belongs outside any known genre. While there have been excellent, contextual folk albums about death, such as Sun Kil Moon’s "Benji" or Sufjan Steven’s "Carrie & Lowell," “A Crow Looked at Me” is simply unprecedented in its level of realism. Listening to this album is the closest thing to experiencing someone else’s loss without actually becoming them. This may seem repulsive. For some, this can be a transformative exercise in empathy — the chance to learn what real death feels like and a call to appreciate the moments they currently share with those they love.
But why make something so vulnerable, so ugly in its honesty, that even loyal fans may find it too intrusive to listen to?
While “A Crow Looked at Me” is a statement of absolute loss, the magnitude of its loss only exists because of a deep unyielding love. If grief is loss multiplied by love, it’s very clear that Phil loves Geneviéve. In the album’s liner notes, he tries to make this clear:
“Why share this much?” Elverum writes. “I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known.”
James Li is a contributor to Daily Lobo Music. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org