How do we talk about the only thing that we all have in common? We don’t. A fear of death, or of the people we love dying, or of finitude more broadly – maybe talked about in that 5am post-party puff – but it’s not usually befitting for sober smalltalk. So when Phil Elverum released his latest Mount Eerie project, A Crow Looked At Me, some people were put off. ‘He released an album about his wife dying? I’m not listening to that. That’s too real.’ Others switched off after the record’s very first line: “Death is real.” A statement so totally obvious, but one in which we have to blindside day-by-day, since it nullifies the life that we’re compelled to keep on living. “I don’t expect everyone to like it, but I did my best”, Elverum tells me. But death doesn’t have to nullify life. After the passing of his wife last summer, he considered quitting music, but he now decides that “I don’t think this is a good note to leave things on.” The decision to keep on living in the wake of death can sometimes be as painful as the death itself, but he tells me firmly that, “I don’t want to live in the shadow of this trauma indefinitely. I want to keep surviving and living.” Though if death doesn’t have the power to totally nullify life, then it certainly has the force to at least abstract it from ourselves. On the album, Phil refers to it as a ‘crushing absurdity’. So, instead of trying to find meaning in an often meaningless world, he tells me that the album is a meditation on “the very prospect of meaning.” He clarifies: “What is symbolic and how trustworthy could it be? What’s up with this mind’s continual organising and mythologising? Nothing is meaningful, and the random death of my wife is proof of that in the most stupid way, the most graceless lesson.” Despite the crow in the album’s title, and the ravens throughout the album who seem to be a sort of harbinger of death, he tells me that, “I rejected, and still reject, significance, meaning, learning.” It seems that life has to be synonymous with meaning and significance, and we have to be intoxicated with life to willingly go along with it. However, ‘when real death enters the house all poetry is dumb’, and seems to be the greatest cause of sobriety. We become unattached from the world of the blissfully living and the meaningful, and can see it as nothing other than fraudulent.
Writing only a month after the death of his wife, neither did he have the hindsight to exorcise his grief with symbolism. As of writing, it’s still been less a year since Elverum’s wife, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée Elverum passed away from pancreatic cancer. He tells me that, “I am probably too close to this all still to be able to have any useful perspective on it. I’m still in it. I don’t know what I was going for or what happened. I just made these songs of and about my life, a life that continues in the same complex and confusing and joyful and brutal way.” Whatever symbolism can be found in the album, therefore, is unintentional. The birds appear in the album because they appeared in Elverum’s life – nothing more. Though, as a listener and an outsider – it’s impossible not to see the unfortunate symbolism. The outer world seems to have colluded with this specific and domestic death. On Crow, the album’s closing song, Elverum asks his and Geneviève’s child: “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you? Smoldering and fascist with no mother.” Four months after his wife’s death, Donald Trump was elected president. As of writing this, it’s been a week since the poet Joanne Kyger (whose poem Night Palace is featured on the album cover) died. Though, now as a father of an almost two-year-old daughter, Elverum is obligated to imbue this apocalyptic-like devastation with life-giving force. He recorded this album in his wife’s empty art studio, using her instruments, to create an album that has received reviews more favourable than the majority of his projects throughout his long-spanning career. It seems almost crude to treat this album as a piece of art.
During the creation of the album, he tells me that, “I really only thought of myself and expressing myself.” Now, since it’s been released, “it is meant for everyone now in the sense that I am offering it for sale to whoever wants it on the supposition that there is the potential for some kind of appreciation there for everyone.” A Crow Looked At Me is, after all, a piece of art meant for public consumption. So how are we meant to listen to it responsibly? How am I, after to listening to an album of painfully private recollections supposed to approach this subject? We talk about a phrase that I found particularly pertinent on the album: ‘conceptual emptiness’. I ask him what he considers to be the difference between this and actual absence. There will, of course, be two types of listeners of this album – those who have had someone they love die and those who haven’t. The latter will only be able to relate to this album through ‘conceptual emptiness’. Or as Elverum explains far more eloquently than I can, that this will be a person with “less hard life experience”, and someone who “enjoys sitting comfortably, noodling around in the mind, talking about theories and philosophy.” While the former, those who are forced to feel an actual absence, will achingly relate to, “the feeling of walking into my dead wife’s drawing studio and looking at her empty chair and her unfinished drawings.” Either way, Elverum’s grief is one that is as gentle as it is brutal. Nonetheless, death after all is real, and it’s not, he tells me, “fun to play around with, it’s not theoretical or interesting. It’s just shitty.” And then: “my cat who has been missing for 36 hours, who I’d assumed was dead, just walked in the door and meowed at me. Maybe it’s relevant?”