Death, and the fear thereof, is a shared human experience. At humanity’s most confused moments, existential angst claws at meaning in how we make sense of our lives. We fear the moments we occupy in the present, and fear what is beyond. Thankfully, art helps humanity reckon with its futility. On A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum, under his Mount Eerie moniker, dissects how tragedy affects him, his infant daughter, and society’s perception of their changed lives.
Phil Elverum’s wife, Genevieve Castree Elverum, died on July 9th, 2016, after a battle with cancer. She was 35. She passed away surrounded by her loved ones, including her parents and Phil, in the comforts of her own room. After being abruptly diagnosed with stage four cancer, her death was inevitable. All the logical and constructive steps were taken to ensure that Genevieve’s passing would be as peaceful as it could be.
A Crow Looked at Me is Phil Elverum’s deeply personal account of his experiences immediately following his beloved’s death. This album is by no means easy to listen to. There is nothing but despair, nothing but the confusion left in the wake of loss. The album is not for Mount Eerie’s fan base, rather it is for Elverum himself as an artist, and more importantly a human, trying to make sense of the confusion caused by tragedy. Every line is specifically about and for Genevieve, but the sense of shared humanity resonants with those who listen.
The introductory lines of the album, “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,” inform the listener that this project is not an artistic statement, as if that would be taking advantage of Genevieve’s passing. Crow is not poetry to Elverum, it is his reality. In the wake of this tragedy, art is not real, but cancer is. The song descends into painfully candid accounts of his new life, small moments that reinforce the reality of his wife being gone, such as “A week after you died a package with your name on it came / And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret / And collapsed there on the front steps I wailed / A backpack for when she goes to school a couple years from now / You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known deep down would not include you.” As the song progresses Elverum begins compressing more and more tragedy into the track and by its final minute he is delivering lines at a rapid pace, mirroring his thought processes–honestly wrestling with what to do now. It reaches the emotional climax that directly follows a death. Phil wails and shakes with grief, followed by the slow burning depression and acceptance of loss. “Real Death” emphasizes the dreadful epiphany that we are all always so close to not existing at all.
“Seaweed” opens, “Our daughter is one and half, it has been eleven days since you died.” The reminder that Genevieve is survived by their young daughter is now excruciating. “Real Death” progresses so quickly that it is difficult to grasp the gravity of the entire situation–an aspect of death that Elverum wants us to share with him, even though he does not go out of his way to make us feel it. Elverum does something interesting with the first line of this song that continues over the course of the album. He says, “our daughter,” not “my daughter,” even in the absence of his wife. Well, of course it is still their daughter, death does not take that accomplishment away. But his use of “our” is a tender word choice that is yet another tribute to the absence of Genevieve. He advances this notion on “Forest Fire” with “Our open bedroom window.”This is different than their child—the bedroom is now Phil’s, only Phil’s, but Genevieve’s trace, perhaps even in a spiritual manner, lingers on in her permanent absence. The lyrics about their bedroom feel compulsive, as if Elverum does not realize to what he is eluding. Each use of the now inappropriate personal pronoun rings throughout the album’s solemn atmosphere, as he struggles to adjust to the undesired change right before us.
By the time the album reaches its final track, Phil Elverum has apprised in chronological order an agonizing narrative of his experiences and thoughts following the death of his wife. It is an emotional plummet of an album, and its sonic qualities do not necessarily relate to the Microphone’s/Mount Eerie’s oeuvre. Before, there have been concept albums, complex instrumentation, and a strong dichotomy between clean and distorted passages. A Crow is different. Phil Elverum does not want this album to be framed as “capital-A Art.” Each track is a journal entry, some poetic, some more like prose, but each is dedicated to the memory and life of Genevieve, for anyone who will listen. These are musings about mortality and the confusion of survival.
The last track, “Crow,” an epilogue of sorts, offers a new and hopeful perspective. One of the more poetic tracks on the album, we find Phil hiking in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest with his young daughter asleep in his backpack, with Genevieve’s toboggan keeping her warm. They are looking for the damaged site in wake of a forest fire and find a crow instead. Elverum sets out looking for destruction and loss, but this aviary creature, flying alone in the frozen and deserted forest, follows the father and daughter. As his daughter nods in and out of sleep, she whispers “crow,” her father answers, “and there she was.” The song is the punctuation at the end of this retrospective on Genevieve Elverum. Physically, literally, she is dead and gone. But metaphysically, spiritually, she lives on through the crow flying in the woods, though their daughter, and through her memory which is embodied by A Crow Looked at Me.