Heartbreaking doesn’t even begin to describe A Crow Looked at Me.
On July 9, 2016, Geneviève Castrée succumbed to the ravages of pancreatic cancer at her home, her husband by her side. Now, nearly eight months later, her husband, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum, has released a collection of bracingly intimate emotions and musings on the day-to-day life he now lives without Castrée.
Heartbreaking doesn’t even begin to describe A Crow Looked at Me. Those familiar with Elverum know he operates within a decidedly lo-fi, often vocally detached approach that lends his songs an inherent melancholy. Nothing he has released prior to this will prepare listeners for the complete and genuine sadness that permeates the album.
Elverum’s conversational delivery, largely directed at his late wife, often feels far too intimate and personal for others to hear. That he has made a very public form of catharsis for a deeply personal loss is a testament to the overwhelming need to create and make sense of one’s world in the wake of tragedy.
Rarely has a songwriter delved into such profoundly personal pain and suffering with such matter-of-factness. Long known for his melancholic approach both as Mount Eerie and the Microphones, Elverum here dispels the somewhat fictional nature of his previous sorrows, pointing out he thought he knew what sadness was but had never truly experienced it until the loss of his wife. “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about back before I knew my way around these hospitals,” he sings on “Emptiness pt. 2,” itself perhaps a reference to the Microphones’ 2001 lo-fi masterpiece, The Glow, Pt. 2.
Throughout, he often sounds as though he is coasting through the sparse backing tracks, staring blankly and allowing the thoughts having cropped up in his head to come out in real time. These aren’t so much songs as stream-of-conscious narratives and one-way conversations. It’s an incredibly difficult album to sit through without feeling the overwhelming emotions lurking beneath the detached delivery. But it’s also a testament to his love for Castrée, herself an artist and mother to their young child.
“I am a container of stories about you/and I bring you up repeatedly, uninvited to,” he sing/speaks on “My Chasm” “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” he asks, as if to the listener directly, breaking the fourth wall or simply realizing that he is eavesdropped on by a nameless, faceless audience. Arriving at the album’s midpoint, it’s something of a brief check in to ensure we’ve followed him down through his seemingly bottomless grief.
Listening to the mundane imagery of “When I Take the Garbage Out At Night” one can’t help but think of A Crow Looked At Me’s closest, most recent spiritual predecessor in Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. Similar to that album’s extended, almost free-form narratives, Elverum’s naked emoting feels bracing. Even in our culture of oversharing, there is something too deeply personal about the loss of a spouse to have it feel as though it should be made available for public consumption. Yet grief manifests itself in many forms and here Elverum has elected a very public platform to explore and relate his current state of mind in the wake of his wife’s death.
“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,” he acknowledges on opening track “Real Death,” prefacing the next 42 minutes’ worth of doing just that. This knowing admission serves to make the everyday, seemingly trivial nature of the things he goes about doing all the more crushing: Castrée still receives mail; a package arrives in her name, only to contain a backpack for their young daughter who will be attending school in the coming years; the bathroom trash can still contains remnants of both her and her sickness, neither of which Elverum is quite prepared to part with. These very real circumstances with which he now finds himself faced are delivered matter-of-factly with intimate detail, no trace of romanticizing or fetishizing the idea of sadness. This is pure grief delivered in a voice in which you can hear the weight of loss, the everyday reminders that Castrée is no longer, gone from his life and gradually slipping from vivid memories into lifeless photographs.
It’s by no means an easy listen, but those who are able to make it through will feel Elverum’s catharsis as he shares each and every detail of what had been a private existence. That he shares such grief in a public manner helps make every line all the more relatable. With A Crow Looked At Me, Elverum has created a work that deals with death, loss and the myriad accompanying emotions in a starkly sobering manner that ultimately proves highly affecting and, most importantly, incredibly real.