How do you turn a shocking personal tragedy into fuel for your work? In most professions the question is unthinkable. It has been said suffering is required for great art, but Phil Elverum seems to disagree. Last year, he lost his wife Geneviève Castrée, a noted artist and musician, to pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. A Crow Looked at Me is about Castrée’s death, yes, but more than that, it is about her absence.
Elverum makes this clear in the record’s opening moments: “Someone is there and then they’re not/And it’s not for singing about/It’s not for making into art.” He wants you to take him at his word here. A Crow Looked at Me is not a particularly imaginative, poetic or tuneful album, but pierces with its intimacy and honesty, as gripping and deep as any 10-piece overture. This is not a meticulous thoughtfully curated, poured-over album; this is Elverum sorting through the wreckage in real time.
A Crow Looked at Me is an unflinching examination of death in all of its crushing absurdity. It’s an exceedingly difficult listen, a piece with Benji and Skeleton Tree. Dates and events are recorded with precision, each track a dutifully, objectively detailed chapter of the months before and after Castrée’s death. Sadness emanates from every aspect of the production. “Death is real,” which functions as the album’s subtitle, makes its presence felt with every creaking note. The context is significant as well. Crow was recorded in the room where Castrée died, with her instruments.
Where some albums about loss navigate their way through metaphor and imagery, Crow is explicit. It does not dodge, evade or tiptoe, but the delivery is paced and smoothed out. There’s no tragedy to unspool; the circumstances are laid to bear in stark terms again and again. “Your transformed dying face will recede with time/Is what our counselor said,” sings Elverum on “Swims”, which is to say it hasn’t yet. Not even close. A Crow Looked at Me is an open wound, so fresh that shock and numbness still stand in the place of the pain. There are moments of escape, like on “When I Take Out the Garbage at Night”, where Elverum loses himself in the night sky; but they are fleeting, and followed by the devastation of tracks like “Toothbrush/Trash”.
When he’s not staring emptily at his wife’s belongings, Elverum reckons with what to do with her memories and his new life as a widower and a father. “I am a container of stories about you,” he croaks on “My Chasm”. He’s unsure how many to share and how many to keep to himself, but he unloads as many as he can onto Crow, giving each the space it deserves. The semi-self-titled closer shifts the focus to Elverum’s daughter, born only months before Castrée’s diagnosis. This is not exactly a hopeful moment, more a pause. An acknowledgment that for all of the isolation and empty space, time will press on, however slowly.
For anyone who was ever remotely interested in Mount Eerie or the Microphones, A Crow Looked at Me is a must-listen. But it feels made for a very specific time and place, and the subject matter is tough to stomach and tougher to shake. It’s bleak, but without any of the life-affirming notes you might expect from an album like this. At its end, A Crow Looked at Me hangs, gaunt and alone, offering no assurances or consolation.
For these reasons, it didn’t strike me that Crow is part of the healing process but a prerequisite to it, like packing a bag before a long journey. The weight of the tragedy has not dissipated. It may never, certainly not completely. Death isn’t for making into art, but great art transcends death. B PLUS