“Death is real,” murmurs Phil Elverum. The emotions of a man destroyed by the sheer callousness of death calmly stir the sorrow within. The lyrics gently flow over the listener, bringing them close to the abyss of despair. The death of Elverum’s wife dominates his every thought and, of course, the new album from Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me (2017). After his faith confronted its greatest threat, Elverum has succeeded in capturing a brutal truth in his music—that death is a reality.
Mount Eerie has released yet another album. Based in Anacortes, Washington, Mount Eerie is an indie-folk musical project lead by Phil Elverum—a renowned songwriter, producer, and the sole band member—who has packed his musicality in nine previous albums. The band’s name comes from the title the final album by The Microphones, his previous group, and it has been the center of Elverum’s musical life since.
The album arrives surprisingly soon after the tragic loss of Elverum’s wife Genevieve Gosselin in 2016, who was also an artist. A Crow Looked at Me endeavors to depict the depression he felt after her death from cancer. All 11 songs have great simplicity, consisting solely of his voice and a guitar. Elverum refers to it as “barely music” in the sense that it is more of a narrative than a rhythmical combination of sonic elements.
It is a fresh direction, even for Elverum. Indeed, his 13 albums under both The Microphones and Mount Eerie monikers have always been experimental. Sauna (2015) and Clear Moon (2012) also pursued a pureness of sound, appealing to the listeners only by his voice. Yet this new album has taken simplicity to a higher level, receiving the praise of critics. At the time of writing, it has an average score of 96 points out of a hundred on Metacritic.
The first track “Real Death” is a perfect representative of this change. Following a subtle guitar accompaniment, the song starts with the words “Death is real,” which is the primary message the artist intends to deliver with the other 10 songs. Without any euphemism, he throws the subject of the entire album into the first verse of the first song. The other verses are also more of a straightforward confession, rather than being poetic or figurative.
Even the musical techniques that produce the rhythm of the songs go back to basics. Only the most principal methods like rhyming couplets and the continuous repetition of rhyming words are used throughout this album. In “Real Death,” Elverum sings “all fails, my knee fails, my brain fails words fails,” to express his hopeless state. Also by rhyming the words mail and wail to fail, he adds a melody to the words. It is simple, but no one can doubt its effectiveness.
Inheriting the first track’s somber simplicity, all the other songs like “Ravens” and “Crow” tend to directly convey the singer’s grief, another factor that has intrigued the critics. Elverum deals with death in a completely different way to most musical artists. Mike Powell, a reviewer at Pitchfork, points out that, unlike how most literature reduces death to a “sympathy extracting device,” Elverum put emphasis on the real traits of death—an ominously moving tide, entering life without warning, and remaining a slog.
A Crow Looked at Me might not be a comfortable listen, especially not during the upcoming summer, a season full of vitality. However, keep listening to its tracks and you might discover that the saturnine tone paradoxically evokes a certain appreciation for life. The constant reminder of the reality of death, and the specific illustration of the pain that follows, serves to highlight the liveliness that surrounds us. In this perspective, the album might be the perfect choice for a beautiful summer’s day.
▲ A Crow Looked at Me Album. Provided by P.W. Elverum & Sun Store.