There is an air of constant, shell shocked bewilderment that seeps through the lyrics of Mount Eerie’s latest, A Crow Looked At Me. The sense of “how can this be” and air of surrealism-because what is life, reality, after the sudden death of your loved one, your life partner-that gives the album a near voyeuristic feeling. Should we be listening to this? If , as singer Phil Elverum sings, “…it’s [death] not for singing about, it’s not for making into art” then what does that mean for the consumer, or, perhaps worse, the “critics”?
That there is a mark of potent storytelling, and while the album is full of painful epitaphs, resounding and visceral imagery and haunting uses of instrumentation that allows death to hover over all of the songs like it hovers in the mind of the artist at hand, its an emotive and expressive important listening experience.
It isn’t easily digestible and there’s no reason it should be.
On the first listen there is something unassumingly straightforward and relaxed about the album. The singer-songwriter style leans heavily on the poetic lyricism but it echoes of music we’ve heard before.
“Seaweed”, the second song on the album, quickly breaks that familiarity as it churns over the what if’s in life as he sings about moving on in a home that doesn’t feel like a home anymore, about moving forward without that constant. “So I came here alone with our baby and the dust of your bones” he sings to almost echoing silence. It’s about dealing with the ridiculous, unforgiving nature of life and death which sometimes possesses no hidden meanings.
What could mean anything in this crushing absurdity
It’s also the song that introduces the albums reliance on abrupt endings where Elverum refuses to end songs in a conventional manner, rather ending them when his thoughts are over.
“Ravens”, a haunting beautiful number which eerily includes what sounds like an oxygen machine working in the background, plays more like a rambling letter to his deceased wife than a song with hooks and choruses. It, like many of the songs on the album, deals with details of loss, such as getting rid of old clothes and clearing out closest space where the deceased’s items used to reside in.
You’re not here/ I watched you die in this room
“Swims” brings into play the coupl’es infant daughter, their first child, as he deals with the questions that will follow their growth. It’s also the song where the images of her permeate the strongest, with descriptors such as “I can’t get the image out of my head of when I held you right there and watched you die”.
He sings about going to a grief counselor and the process of cancer, especially the accelerated nature of pancreatic nature, which wreaked havoc on his wife’s body as the visits grew longer and longer as their walks too a greater toll on her body. It’s honest and it’s raw about the nature of this illness that so many have been touched by.
The room I still don’t go in at night because I see you/ your transformed dying face
Gone are the hidden messages and ambivalent pondering from past albums by Mount Eerie, replaced instead by such frank and jarring thoughts on death that it will manage to shake any listener. Death so often in music – or any art form – is presented as this grand illusion, like abstract painting where the emotions are big and explosive but also shrouded in musicality which makes it all much more of a production than a deep and intense look at one mans individual suffering. “A Cross Looked At Me” instead is like a still life photograph, a candid of someone in the throes of grief, with all of the clarity and detail that comes with it and at times, despite how hard it is to look, it’s almost more difficult to look away.
“My Chasm” describes the gulf that grows between the one grieving and the rest of the world as he works through how to move forward in his privacy as well as publicly.
I live with your absence and it’s been two months
While some songs use imagery to convey the potent loss death brings such as vacant mountains and crows that hover like bad omens, some songs such as “Toothbrush/Trash” delicately weave in the seemingly mundane nature of life where you become so familiar in sharing the presence of someone else that when they’re gone that vacancy is felt like a missing limb.
I realized that these photographs we have of you/Are slowly replacing the subtle familiar/Memory of what it’s like to know you’re in the other room/To hear you singing on the stairs
“Crow” which touches on the use of the bird throughout the entire album is a short and sweet number that alludes to grief that will follow them throughout their lives, as the singer wonders about the world he’ll be bringing his daughter up in.
“Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you?/Smoldering and fascist with no mother”
It ends with sparingly used percussion, something used even less throughout the rest of album, bringing us towards the end as Elverum’s voice slowly, achingly, trails off.
Using grief to create great works of art, consuming art to utilize as catharsis, using art and music as nothing more than a tool of relaying moments, experiences, first touches, hidden glances, devastating loss or all encompassing joy is a natural part of life. A Crow Looked at Me is a dedication to one man’s loss, one mans grieving process which included sitting in his late wife’s studio and recording the eleven songs on the album, grappling with the heavy feeling of creating this art out of her death and the question of exploitation that comes with it. But buried in these intimate and personal reflections and simplistic insights there are themes and moments that resonate with all of us. Art doesn’t need to be for everyone, but great art touches all who read, watch or listen.
I guess it goes without saying that I found this album transcendent and beautiful but it also seems to reach beyond ratings. Take that as you will.