Secret Meeting score: 90
by Philip Moss
Death has been a habitual feature in writing since pen first hit paper: Shakespeare’s tragedies; Poe and Shelley’s gothic tales; Sylvia Plath’s melancholic poetry; and, Bowie’s 2016, vision of death, odyssey – Blackstar. But, never, particularly in music, has death felt so real, as on Mount Eerie’s, A Crow Looked At Me.
In October 2015, Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, was diagnosed with cancer, leaving the small family unit – they’d recently just had a baby together – shaken. Over the next few months, her condition worsened, to the point that she was bed bound, at home, with the tiny front bedroom of their Anacortes, Washington home resembling a hospital. Then, just nine months after diagnosis, she died.
Within six weeks of her death, Phil Elverum began to pour his feelings, emotions and frustrations onto her paper she’d left behind. Out went the tubes, monitors and orthopaedic bed, to replaced by Geneviève’s old guitars and musical equipment- all of which Phil would use across a 98 day period to create his new macabre masterpiece.
In stark contrast to Elverum’s last records under the Mount Eerie moniker – the claustrophobic, black metal whirlwind of noise, Ocean Roar, and the eclectic, Viking-inspired drone of Sauna (both of which featured his wife on vocals) – comes a claustrophobic, sensory abusing, starkly dense, fragile whirlwind of emotion. An album of non-fiction poems chronicling the open wound he has spiralled into. Anecdotes of presents she bought for their daughter that only arrived after her death, which she knew were for a future she ‘must have known deep down would not include’ her are covered in Real Death). How he, humbly, questions whether friends will want him around constantly talking about his dead wife in My Chasm. The relaying of a trip with his daughter to the island – Haida Gwaii – where he and Geneviève had holidayed not long before they’d found out she was pregnant, only this time he just wandered ‘aimless and weeping’ in Ravens. And how, after three months, he’s finally accepting that his former wife is no more- that the mundanities he has become so used to are echoes, that the photographs he keeps up around the house are fading memories, that he will not hear her sing again, that he will not hear her chair squeaking as she sits down in it again and that her toothbrush will not be used again in Toothbrush/Trash.
One might ask, why has Phil made and shared this music? Why does anyone need to hear this outpouring of personal emotion? Well, art is supposed to be challenging, thought provoking and inspiring, and like Nick Cave’s last album, Skeleton Tree, cathartic grief can often bring out the best in an artist. Certainly, there is nothing enjoyable about Crow’s 41 minute and 30 second chorus-less journey of grimness – it feels terribly sadistic to sit down and try to enjoy it – but, it certainly is rewarding in its own, unique, way. So, why? And, simply, his answer can be found in the sleeve notes: ‘I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that love her. I want it known.’
A Crow Looked At Me is a difficult, at times harrowing, listen. A record to be listened to alone, in the dark. So turn off the lights. Go for a late night drive. Take a long midnight walk. Switch on your brain, and let Phil pour out his diary. This isn’t a record tangled in poetic metaphor or sonic beauty. This is real.
Want to read more about Phil? Check out our review of his Leeds show here.