Death is real, and for Phil Elverum, formerly the mastermind of indie rock band The Microphones and now recording under the solo pseudonym of Mount Eerie, the reality of death has permeated his personal life and, thus, his music. A Crow Looked At Me is the eighth album of Elverum’s released under his Mount Eerie moniker, and although the quiet, fragile, borderline ambient indie folk stylings of this record are reminiscent of Elverum’s previous material, the lyrical content surpasses even the hushed melancholia and introversion of The Microphones’ pivotal album, The Glow Pt. 2. Whilst The Glow Pt. 2 often dealt with its maudlin themes in a somewhat abstract and dreamy-eyed fashion, however, on A Crow Looked At Me, Elverum exhibits himself at his most honest, his most frank and, as such, his most vulnerable. Given the context of this album for the artist, such an attitude is distressingly open. A Crow Looked At Me is the first studio release from Elverum since the passing of his wife and fellow musician, Geneviève Castrée, who died in the summer of 2016, having been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer the year before, only five months after the birth of the couple’s first and only child. This album was recorded by Elverum with his wife’s instruments in the room where she died, with the lo-fi, home-recording quality being in keeping with much of the artist’s previous material. However, in this format, there looms a tangible sense of grief, loneliness, suffering, confusion and sheer human sadness, not solely in Elverum’s chronological, free-form, stream-of-conscious account of his life following his wife’s death, but also in the absolutely desolate recordings wherein the singer’s performances portray him as completely broken, and that should be clear to the listener even without the benefit of context. The artist’s lyrical endeavours on this album, however, display not solely the themes of human emotion that arrive with the death of a loved one, but also an astonishing level of self-awareness as Elverum stumbles around for any sense of closure from within his disjointed psyche, continuously reminding himself throughout the album’s runtime: “Death is real”. What’s perhaps most impressive about the lyrical reflections on A Crow Looked At Me is that, in spite of how direct, natural and candid they are, there is nevertheless an obvious complexity to the artist’s ruminations; not a complexity that arises from his confused thoughts, but one that is seemingly controlled by Elverum as to properly convey the burden of mourning he feels and, indeed, he is extremely successful in doing this. Despite it’s hushed nature, A Crow Looked At Me is far from easy-listening, with Elverum’s portrait of mental suffering being so vivid as to seemingly transfer some of this burden onto the listener. Indeed, the immense fragility conveyed by the musician makes A Crow Looked At Me one of the most challenging listens in recent memory, but its fragility often comes in the form of an oddly comforting gentleness that leaves the listener inexplicably enlightened rather than simply thoroughly upset. As such, this album is not merely a painfully and beautifully honest documentary of one man’s coming to terms with the loss of his wife, but, in more regards than one, a masterpiece that exhibits the power of music.
The amount of emotional weight that is condensed into just the first track on this album, Real Death, is itself testament to Elverum’s ability to capture his hopeless confusion and grief following his wife’s death. Even the first line, although as straightforward as much of the lyrics on A Crow Looked At Me, is laced with the thematic complexities of the artist’s narrative across the record. “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 / When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb” is a bold and stark introduction to Elverum’s thought process, in that it sets the tone for the candid nature of the record, whilst also displaying his self-awareness about the entire notion of releasing a record to the world that documents his suffering. Even before it entered Elverum’s life so mercilessly, death was not an uncommon theme amongst the singer’s previous material. Here, however, he’s not singing about the theme of death as some conceptual, philosophical or abstract idea; he’s simply recounting his experience as, in his own words, “a hospital-driver, a caregiver, a child-raiser, a griever”. Indeed, Elverum’s role as a father is a common theme across this album, to the extent that A Crow Looked At Me chronicles not just the musician’s story, but that too of his daughter. One of the most memorable and painful lines on the first song is Elverum’s flashback to breaking down on his front doorsteps a week after Castrée’s death when he received a package addressed to her, opening it to find a schoolbag she had secretly ordered for their daughter, knowing full well that she would never live to see her only child attend school. Delivered with Elverum’s vulnerable inflection and set against the hushed, minimalist instrumental arrangement, the fragility and sheer sadness of this song is as real as the death that the singer is recalling, and as the singer whispers his last line, “I don’t want to learn anything from this / I love you”, there comes the realisation that A Crow Looked At Me is not simply a documentation of Elverum’s suffering, but a monument of his love for his wife.
This concept is made all the more obvious later on in the tracklisting, particularly on the song My Chasm, as Elverum opens the song proclaiming, “I am a container of stories about you” and later promises, “I’ll speak to your absence and carry our stories around my whole life”. With this role that the musician assumes as a means of preserving Castrée’s memory, in his usual self-aware manner, he questions the extent to which this will negatively affect his social life, asking, “I bring you up repeatedly, uninvited to / Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” These anxieties are voiced in a more graphic and heartrending fashion as Elverum says, “I now wield the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion and a mutual aching to leave”. Given the artist’s humble hometown of Anacortes in Washington state, it’s probable that he’s rather well-known amongst the small city’s inhabitants, which likely makes everyday activities such as going to the shops incredibly hard knowing that many people there will be aware of Elverum’s situation and be quietly gossiping about him with one another. As the singer states in his closing thoughts of the song, “The loss in my life is a chasm I take into town and I don’t wanna close it”, the effect on Elverum of the death of his wife exists almost as a sort of aura that surrounds him wherever he goes, naturally bringing down anyone who is around him. However, the musician’s response to this isn’t as negative as one might expect, as he accepts this and embraces it as an opportunity to preach of the reality of death, boldly ending My Chasm by proclaiming, “Look at me / Death is real”.
However, as heartbreaking as Elverum’s lyrics may be, the brilliance of A Crow Looked At Me extends beyond just the downtrodden themes. Indeed, the eerie atmosphere created by the instrumental arrangements of these songs is pivotal to the immense impact of this album. The gentle acoustic fingerpicking and out-of-time plonking of the piano on Ravens, for instance, create a barren soundscape of haunting, clashing chords that add to the ghostly intensity of the singer’s recollection of two ravens flying over his back garden one autumn day in 2015, interpreting them as omens, although, of what, he did not know. It’s at moments such as this that A Crow Looked At Me rivals some of the most depressing and contemplative albums of all time, with Nick Drake’s final album, Pink Moon, coming to mind as a result of Elverum’s similar hushed performances and desolate instrumental arrangements. The quiet and disjointed acoustic guitar playing on the album’s final song, Crow, is almost childish in its simplicity and slight clumsiness, which perfectly reflects the lyrical detour taken on this track, being the only song on the album addressed to Elverum’s daughter, rather than his wife. It’s at times such as these that the listener may be reminded of other artists, with the early work of Elliott Smith being an apt comparison, but there is something definitively unique about Elverum’s approach to this frail, lo-fi indie folk sound. His use of obscure chord structures, unconventional arrangements and unpredictable, trembling vocal lines creates an absolutely chilling atmosphere that enhances his funereal lyrics whilst not diverting any attention from his musical eulogy for his dead wife; rather the music on this album crafts a dark, looming, oppressive ambiance that subtly but surely creates what can only be described as a crushing feeling for the listener. Indeed, despite its soft complexion, the emotional weight of A Crow Looked At Me makes it one of the heaviest albums I’ve heard in a very long time, with the power of Elverum’s words — as he offers no philosophical revelations or moral guidance, merely documenting his experience as a grieving husband — being so forceful in their truthfulness as to completely overwhelm the listener with so many different emotions that it can be hard to catch a breath.
A Crow Looked At Me excels in a myriad of regards, including the fact that it has made for what is easily that hardest review I have yet written. Being such a personal record that is articulated with such astounding candour, it’s difficult to scrutinise this album without acknowledging that one can only do so through a very particular lens; a lens that is crafted by one’s own life experiences and personal connection to many of the topics that Elverum confronts. What’s more, there is not a single lyrical moment on this record that is not outstanding in its own individual way, from the painful confusion displayed as the singer proclaims that he rejects nature to his dreamy-eyed rumination as he recalls scattering his wife’s ashes as the sun was going down and choosing to view Castrée as the sunset. Phil Elverum has always been an honest lyricist, but the wistful metaphors of his previous material have been replaced by an even more powerful truthfulness that sees each song unravel as a diary entry or home movie played on a projector screen, especially given the artist’s constant detailing of how much time has passed since his wife’s death, with each song seemingly appearing in chronological order. In this regard, this album provides an insight into the mind of Phil Elverum like no other project of his has done in the past, although the listener may find out more than they would like to. Ultimately, A Crow Looked At Me, whilst not on par with the pivotal stylistic significance of The Glow Pt. 2, is certainly as compelling of a listen as Elverum’s magnum opus, and will certainly go down as a strong contender for his best work. At this point in the review, I feel it necessary to extend my deepest and sincerest sympathies to Phil and his daughter, and anyone else who should find themselves confronted by such suffering and tragedy. Indeed, writing this review has proven so difficult largely because A Crow Looked At Me is almost too real to be a commercial album, but I had nevertheless promised myself that my opinions of this record would not be influenced by its tragic context. However, it just so happens that Elverum deals with his exposure to such intense and interminable pain with a candour and self-awareness that few other artists could come close to achieving. For this underlying reason, A Crow Looked At Me is not solely a monumental musical achievement, but also one of the most beautiful eulogies ever written, and one that will enshrine Geneviève’s memory forever.
The Vinyl Verdict: 9.5/10