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Mount Eerie ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ – Review

2 Apr

Phil Elverum’s career has in many ways been defined by clear consistency. He has recorded music as Mount Eerie since 2003, the same year he married Genevieve Gosselin. Like waves that calmly lap on the shore, Mount Eerie records wash up every eighteen months or so, each one sounding roughly the same, and roughly as good, as the one before it. But any sense of consistency was surely disrupted in 2015 when Genevieve was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. Within twelve months, Genevieve lost her battle.

This is the difficult subject matter of ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, a record that chronicles the months before and after Genevieve’s passing in uncomfortable degrees of detail. It opens with the line ‘death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not’ and gets no less direct as it progresses. This album is an open wound slowly being healed by the air. Padding the autobiographical lyrics and simple melodies are unfussy musical arrangements – usually a guitar and tepid beat to just about hold things together. Most of the instruments used belonged to Genevieve. The album was recorded in the room where she passed away.

Over the last two years we have been gifted with some of the most moving albums about grief – ‘Carrie and Lowell’, ‘Skelleton Tree’ and ‘Stage Four’ to name just three. But even in this context, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ feels unprecedented. Its insights about coping with loss feel poetically specific and universal at the same time. With what sounds like the most delicate ease, Elverum has crafted perhaps the definitive musical examination of mourning.

The passage of time – and its ability to simultaneously heal and exasperate pain – is a key aspect of this record’s framework. The narrative is roughly chronological; Elverum often counts how many months have passed since the death, as if crossing out days on the calendar. It creates a sense of momentum, only there’s never a clear sense of what we’re moving towards. Time is creeping on, the gap between the past and present is growing, but days, and thoughts, blur into each other. He never strays far from a handful of familiar chords and melodies, whilst he often repeats the same lyrics, scratching for some kind of revelation that will make things easier. The quietly tick tocking drum beat mirrors the seconds passing in half time, the barely there vocals strain for closure. This is the dull, thick fuzz of grief.

The songs often end with a simple, direct thought that expresses grief in the rawest terms possible. ‘I Love You’, ‘Death is real’, ‘how could I live?’ Art aims to convey real or imagined experience in the hope that it elicits some kind of vivid reaction and understanding. This is what mount Eerie achieve. Art that is as brave and brutally honest as this Is in some ways the most necessary, even if it happens to be the most difficult to consume. Of course, confessional art should not get a free pass simply by the nature of its candour (I am one of many who feel Sun Kil Moon’s haphazardly autobiographical lyricism is greatly overrated). There has to be a degree of craft and contemplation, otherwise what separates art from the glut of misery memoirs and tragic life stories that clutter shelves in book stores? But not to worry, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ is the product of not just aching sincerity but also subtle craft and instinctive innovation.

There are many details of mourning that Mount Eerie manage to write about with real understanding. For example; Elverum spends much of the album seeking out and questioning signs and symbols. Contemplating if there’s any significance in the sound of a closing door, air coming through open windows, a fly buzzing around the room. Wondering if hundreds of Canadian geese on the beach, and later two Ravens flying towards the sunset, could contain any symbolism. In the final song he might finally have found what he is looking for. Hiking with his daughter, he hears the sound of a crow as they weave ‘through the cedar grove’. His daughter starts muttering ‘crow’ to herself. ‘And there you are’ Elverum sings cryptically. The record’s final line. The mysterious symbolism of the crow recalls the central metaphor in Max Porter’s recent novella, ‘Grief is a Thing With Feathers’, another piece about the grieving process written from the perspective of a young father. At points Elverum’s lucid poetry also reminds me of Sharon Olds, C.S Lewis, Mark Kozelak and John Darnielle. Yet perfectly, it’s also a distinctly unique album with no precident. ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ confronts tragedy head on and that bravery is rewarded. This is an album for the ages.

9/10

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