Geneviève Castrée passed away on July 9, 2016 after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. She is survived by her husband, Phil Elverum, and their daughter, who at the time was only four months old. From August to December, Elverum, who records as Mount Eerie, wrote A Crow Looked At Me in the room where Genevieve spent the last months of her life, using her instruments and penning his thoughts on her paper. The record is a declaration of love and loss, a story of a man fighting to find meaning from the seemingly meaningless, all while raising a daughter in an unfair world.
Phil Elverum has always recorded music that juxtaposes the human condition with the natural world. As far back as his recordings with the Microphones, nature has served as Elverum’s artistic muse, being his vessel for showing the ambiguity that life can bring. However, after suffering such a great and horrific loss, he is quick to admonish nature and all of its uncertainty. On “Forest Fire,” Elverum painfully sings “but when I’m kneeling in the heat throwing out your underwear/the devastation is not natural or good/you do belong here/I reject nature, I disagree.” The circle of life, nature’s way of replenishing itself so that it can grow anew, means nothing when you’re the one left standing in the wake of the smoldering ground.
When someone we love dies, we try and find meaning in the otherwise meaningless minutia of our everyday lives. The person lives inside everything we look at and touch; each object holds newfound significance that was not there before. Each sound and taste and feeling sets off a flood of memories that were once seen as simply everyday events. One of the most devastating moments on the album comes from the second track “Seaweed.” Elverum is taking the ashes of his late wife to the place where they were going to build a new house together. He sees group of Canada Geese on the shore of the beach and wonders whether Geneviève liked them or not. He then sees a patch of Foxgloves and asks her whether or not it was a flower she liked. Elverum then comes to the realization “I can’t remember/you did most of my remembering for me.” He has lost such a large part of himself that even the act of remembering is tethered so tightly to the life that he lost so recently.
A continued theme throughout the record is Elverum dealing with the ghost of Geneviève. In many ways he cannot bear to see her go, as he waits months after she passes to throw away the upstairs bathroom garbage where her old toothbrush resides (“Toothbrush/Trash”). Every physical part of her he needs to keep as memories that will soon be all he has, but her spirit is something he cannot seem to keep. He opens the windows in his late wife’s bedroom so that every part of her can leave, as he cannot stand to feel her presence knowing she will not return. The photographs he keeps on his refrigerator will soon be the only memories he has of her, the last keepsake of the life they previously shared together.
Sonically the album is skeletal and sparse. The raw unfiltered sound of Elverum’s voice and guitar make for a haunting piece; one that warrants multiple listens to receive the full weight of what you’re hearing. Elverum stated that one of his major influences on the record was Sun Kil Moon, and it is easy to see why. Like Mark Kozelek’s opus Benji, A Crow Looked at Me is exceptionally honest songwriting. The songs feel as though you are reading the personal diary entries of the songwriter, finding meaning in the little intricacies of life’s moments right as they are. Elverum wants the listener to feel the devastation he is feeling, to bare his heart and love for the person who he lost so quickly.
Throughout the record, Elverum is speaking to his late wife directly, sharing memories and fears to her in hopes she will reply. On the final track “Crows,” we see his direction change. He speaks directly to their daughter, a girl so young she does not yet understand the implications of the devastation around her. It is easy to hear the sad tinge to Elverum’s voice as he recounts a trip to the woods he took with his daughter four months after her mother’s passing. A single crow, historically a sign of death and change, was falling the two as they made their way through the brush and trees. “And there she was,” Elverum states, as matter of factly as he had sounded so far. While Geneviève was gone, she would live on through all things through which Elverum and his daughter can see and touch. It is okay to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless. It is what gives hope to the hopeless, light to those who need to be guided out of the dark.