Reviewing this album is a farce. As most any fan of Phil Elverum – or music in general – is likely to know, his wife passed away after a brutal battle with cancer, not long after the birth of their daughter, their first – and last – child. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is many things at once. A story of unfathomable grief, a meditation on the fleeting nature of life, but most truly, it is a dedication to the women he loves. It's unflinching, frankly, it's brutal. It sticks to an insistence on reality over any kind of pageantry - but he isn't just mourning. There is a demand, above all: we will know that she was great, we will know that he loved her, god damn it.
How does one simply assess something of this nature? He is unsure it should have even been shared, acknowledging the experience as something, “Not for singing about,” on opener ‘Real Death’. Yet, sing he does, over the barest backing Elverum has allowed himself in years. This is a necessity, as he felt it truthful to record the project in its entirety within the room she died, using her own instruments when possible. At first glance, from a selfish, clinically musical perspective it feels like a retreat: Mount Eerie's sonic world had been expanding, from the often serene presentation of Clear Moon or the crashing bombast of the aptly titled Ocean Roar. All this culminated in Sauna, with arguably the most grandeur of his career. It's easy to miss, but simplicity suits these songs. Anything else would have smelt of pretense and artifice when none is needed. Loss rules this album, and speaks for itself.
At times the record is a diary: throwing away her laundry, giving away her things (he's sorry), recalling that the last time it'd rained she'd been alive. The honesty is often heartbreaking. Elverum feels little need to complicate pain into poetics, instead consistently letting us in. One can often feel they're walking the same halls, watching, unable to console him. Helplessness will invade your heart; this is not an album for the letting go.
It could be seen as the earlier stages of a process. The pain never quite peaks, rather going back and forth between harshest moments of pure, crazed pain and solemn, slightly numb musings. ‘Swims’ is particularly crushing, as he recounts therapy and his daughter asking a simple question: “Does mama swim?” “Yes she does,” Elverum softly responds, “that's probably all she does.” You may well cry. Then, ‘My Chasm’ takes things out into the open, as he goes into town and worries as to how much he is permitted to talk about his dead lover. For anyone who has suddenly lost someone and entered the period when kind friends are ready to allow some happiness to return to their lives, guilty to do so in your presence, it's immediately all too familiar.
In an intimate press release, Elverum frankly proffered that this is an album for himself, and an album for her. In recording his grief, he may have been in true need of an outlet, but he's given something to all of us. Unfiltered, ugly grief, truthfully presented, is a rare thing. Music on the subject tends to focus on the eventual hope of coming out on the other side, or often reeks of forced gloom, feeling unlived. A Crow Looked At Me is decidedly neither. This is the real life experience of being unable to look at the one you love; of them fading into, “something jaundiced and fucked.” There is no respite here, no merciful glimmers of peace in loss, it's clear he loves his child deeply, ending the LP with thoughts of her, but everything else is shit. For forty-two minutes, he lets us inside. God forbid, should the day come you suffer such a loss as this, there will be no more honest companion. In any other case, this is not likely to be an album you yearn to play often. It is taxing. How many albums can you name that truly take something away from you by the time they cease? It may not be one you play often, but it's also one you will never forget. It's omnipresent. Words fail.