Release Date: Mar 24, 2017
Record label: P.W. Elverum & Sun Ltd.
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
"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).
Over his prolific 20-year career Phil Elverum has written plenty of songs about mortality, probably second only to the number of songs he has written about nature. A Crow Looked at Me is the first time he has written about death, and there is no album quite like it. Following the passing of his wife, visual artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, Elverum took a couple months to grieve and then sat down in the room where she died and recorded the 11 songs that make up his eighth release as Mount Eerie.
No subject has been more badly exploited by art than death. How often have you found yourself in the middle of a good book or movie, warming up to its world, making the magical passage through which its characters' lives become temporarily real only to be sped into artificial reverence by someone dying? Gosh, you think: Death: That's big. This must be a pretty meaningful experience.
Reviewing this album is a farce. As most any fan of Phil Elverum - or music in general - is likely to know, his wife passed away after a brutal battle with cancer, not long after the birth of their daughter, their first - and last - child. Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me is many things at once. A story of unfathomable grief, a meditation on the fleeting nature of life, but most truly, it is a dedication to the women he loves.
When Phil Elverum announced Mount Eerie's live return in January - an unplugged set, in a local record store - he was overwhelmed by the reaction and eventually had to tell people not to come at all. While he was taken aback that so many people had an interest, it wasn't surprising - many were curious to hear just what he had produced following the death of his wife, Geneviève, in July 2016. A Crow Looked at Me isn't a collection of songs just shaped or affected by grief in the same way Nick Cave's incredible Skeleton Tree was, but a direct and frank response - written not only to describe the mourning process, but as an active part of it.
When acclaimed French-Canadian cartoonist Geneviève Castrée died of pancreatic cancer last July, it only made sense that her husband, Phil Elverum, the lone member behind Mount Eerie, would write A Crow Looked at Me, a response to her untimely passing. Less a collection of songs and more one of dirges, A Crow is entirely surrounded by death. It was recorded using Castrée's instruments, in the room where she died in their home. Composed with minimal instrumentation, Elverum's lament translates sonically and captures feelings words simply can't.
Phil Elverum is so skilled at expressing spirituality and mortality in his work as Mount Eerie that it's convenient to say he's unusually equipped to transform the loss of his wife, musician/writer/visual artist Geneviève Castrée, into something profound and beautiful. However, this is exactly what he doesn't do on A Crow Looked at Me. Arriving less than a year after her death from stage-four pancreatic cancer in July 2016, the album is an instinctive, reflexive reaction to the fact that the woman he loved and the mother of his child is dead.
MOUNT EERIE A Crow Looked At Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun). Rating: NNNN Phil Elverum's eighth album as Mount Eerie opens with the lyric "Death is real," a line that reappears on other songs with increasing intensity, until Elverum cries it out in anguish. It could have been the title to this devastatingly intimate chronicle of the weeks and months after Elverum's wife, Geneviève Castrée Elverum, died in July 2016 of pancreatic cancer.
A Crow Looked at Me is an unflinching look at life going on after the loss of someone dear, as much about love as it is about death. Not long after the birth of their first child, the wife of Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum, musician/visual artist Geneviève Castrée, was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and died a year later. With his new album, Elverum managed to put this experience into words to be sung, and the results offer intensely moving chapters of his coping and survival.
Blinders One of the most common sentiments in the weeks leading up to A Crow Looked At Me's release is one of apprehension; fans of Mount Eerie don't seem to want to hear Phil Elverum's newest effort, at least not in a conventionally excited way. This might be explained best in Phil's own words on opener "Real Death": "[…] I don't want to learn anything from this." One gets a sense that there's incoming lessons that we'd rather not have to interpret, and realizations about ourselves that couldn't possibly be positive. The album is full of cases where Elverum self-awarely contradicts himself.
There is nothing this review can add to the experience of listening to A Crow Looked At Me. Sure, there'll be an incongruous Lou Bega reference at around the 600-word mark for some light relief (it doesn't really work) and a Nabokov quote in the penultimate paragraph to pretend I'm well-read (I'm not) but they're hardly worth sticking around for. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you won't find any score attached.
How do you turn a shocking personal tragedy into fuel for your work? In most professions the question is unthinkable. It has been said suffering is required for great art, but Phil Elverum seems to disagree. Last year, he lost his wife Geneviève Castrée, a noted artist and musician, to pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. A Crow Looked at Me is about Castrée’s death, yes, but more than that, it is about her absence.