This one is difficult. Mount Eerie’s lone member Phil Elverum has created an album that’s better thought of as a book on tape, ruminations on how to continue living after his wife died, leaving him to raise their 1.5 year old daughter all alone. That doesn’t make for the easiest listen even if it is its own kind of rewarding.
By coldest descriptions alone, this album resembles Panda Bear’s Young Prayer. They’re both subdued acoustic guitar and vocals only albums of the pure, raw thoughts of post-death grief. And, indeed, they’re similar in those ways, but polar opposites otherwise. Panda Bear’s album is a wordless howl of emotion — an abstraction of grief. It doesn’t require close listening to pick apart the layers of grief or understand Panda Bear’s mental state. That album is the sound of grief.
A Crow Looked at Me is the claustrophobic thoughts of grief put rambling onto tape.
Without inspection, it doesn’t sound that different from Elverum’s other work except maybe in its notable lack of melody. And that’s the thing. This is about the least enjoyable album I’ve ever enjoyed. With barely any melody to detract from the subject matter, all that’s left are the lyrics, which are suffocating in their sadness.
I haven’t been able to get through this album all at once, and for the sake of this review, I’ve put myself through the torture of trying several times. The furthest I’ve gotten is fifteen seconds into track nine (out of eleven), so that leaves about twelve minutes left in a 41 minute album. This is a compliment to the album — although I realize it doesn’t read like it on the face of it.
In the opening paragraph, I mention how A Crow Looked at Me is better enjoyed like a novel than as a work of music.
It’s a brutal book on tape. Rather, I suppose, it’s a short story on tape, a stunning work of art but not music in the strictest sense. Albums are meant to be consumed in one sitting. In fact, I have an obsession about albums being no longer than about 40 minutes for that very reason. That’s the perfect amount of time to listen to something without getting fidgety. Tracks aren’t meant to be skipped. If you can’t listen to an album straight through and want to put it back on again, it’s probably much too long.
This album doesn’t adhere to that criteria in the slightest. It’s hard to get through more than a few tracks without wanting to turn it off — not out of boredom but because it’s far too painful. Those more masochistic than I am may find this an incredible single sitting listen, but for me, it’s just too difficult. As a work of art, Mount Eerie evokes the relentless torture of Elverum’s circumstances and imbues the listener with it.
An important caveat here is I am a member of a target audience most likely to feel extreme empathy for Elverum in this situation.
My wife and I have a two year old daughter, and I happen to love my wife just as much as he seems to have loved his own wife. I can’t help but make the album about me. It’s like looking into a brutal future or alternate timeline.
Life is a high stakes game of leaving yourself open to pain, and the stakes only get higher the more people you allow into your life. The highest stake is having a child, each additional child increasing those stakes exponentially. Second to children is falling in love and committing to what you hope is a lifelong partner. The stakes in that romantic relationship, too, increase with each child you have with that person. Lose your partner or one of your children, that’s an immeasurable sorrow.
I never thought about death so concretely as I have since my daughter was born.
Mortality suddenly mattered in a way it couldn’t have otherwise. My own mortality was never an obsession for me, but I haven’t stopped thinking about what the death of my wife or daughter would mean. I can’t help but imagine them dying, nightmare depression washing over me. I’m not strong enough for either. I’m barely strong enough to entertain the fleeting obsession.
When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I obsessively listened to Anais Mitchell’s “The Shepherd,” a song about a shepherd who loses his wife and baby in a childbirth gone bad. Even though that had the same level of fear attached to it as this album does, I could listen to that song on repeat for an entire day without feeling physically ill. Part of it is that Mitchell’s song is fiction whereas A Crow Looked at Me is not. Part of it is that Mitchell’s song is a beautiful piece of music where this album is beautiful in spite of its lack of tunefulness.
Mount Eerie doesn’t make listening to this album easy, and the reason why is right in the lyrics on the second line of the album — less than thirty seconds into the thing. To paraphrase, Elverum believes taking actual death and turning it into art is bullshit, and that’s a hard point to argue against.
This entire album undercuts itself as a thing anyone could enjoy.
Late in A Crow Looked at Me, “Soria Moria” echoes the melodies from The Microphones’ masterpiece The Glow Pt. 2, but it’s too late. By then, I am ravaged. By then, even having taken a two hour break to listen to my beloved happy place San Fermin playlist twice, I am emotionally wrecked.
In my reviews, I hesitate to ever give scores, and rarely do I even explicitly say if what I’m reviewing is actually good, bad, great, or whatever. The success of an art project in my eyes is whether or not it seems to meet its intentions. Some albums are meant to be beautiful and should be judged on that. Some albums are meant to feel destructive. Some albums have high aspirations and some are more reserved.
The intentions of A Crow Looked at Me are more elusive, and while I’m certain this album succeeds in its intentions, what those intentions actually are is a matter of personal debate with no clear resolution.
It must have been hell to make, but Elverum is a songwriter.
That’s what he does. How else was he supposed to react to his wife’s death? Though I think of it often in anxiety-welted worry, I cannot fathom how someone gets through such a tragedy. There is no plan for coping with receiving your wife’s mail after she has died. The day is filled with so many tiny moments like that — once mundane and then impossible.
Get back to routine, and life will follow. For a songwriter, writing songs is routine. Mount Eerie has no overt message here besides that, but this isn’t an album meant as a message. This isn’t an album meant to be art, but it is despite its inauspicious intentions. I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if Elevrum even wants this to get good reviews.
Interviews around its release probably shed some light in that regard, but I can’t bring myself to look for them. I want to know but in the way a child wants to know if a monster is under the bed. I want to know, but I can’t look.
Everyone should go out and read the lyrics for A Crow Looked at Me the way they’d read a book of poetry.
It’s easier to take that way, a smidge removed from his voice relating these heartbreaking circumstances. The recommendation here is meant to take some of the power out of this album because it hurts too much to listen to these songs.
Often, I think about this kid I went to school with back when I was in tenth grade. He died in front of the entire school on the football field from a freak heart condition nobody knew he had. At his wake, his parents hugged hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, in an assembly line of mourners who were close with him or only sort of knew him or didn’t even know him at all but felt for the family, so they showed. The situations were obviously different, but this album takes me back to their terrible pain and makes me think about what that family went through and how they carried on with their lives.
That family made some good out of their son’s death, helping pass nationwide laws to bring life-saving defibrillators to every high school and middle school sports contest in America. While this album won’t have such direct, far-reaching effects, I wonder, and hope I never know, if it can be a source of comfort for people going through what Elevrum has just gone through. They can listen to something that may make them sadder, but at least they know they aren’t the only ones.
Or if it just brings comfort to Elevrum alone, maybe that’s enough. A Crow Looked at Me breaks my heart so completely. I want something good to come of it.