By Liam Menzies (@blinkclyro)
Whilst A Crow Looked At Me is full to the brim with sombre and heartbreaking imagery, one line that manages to evoke the realness of Phil Elverum‘s ordeal comes on the record’s third song. As Ravens concludes its second verse, Elverum’s sulky and trauma-ridden voice project the words “now I can only see you on the fridge in lifeless pictures“. Without context, the lyricism of Mount Eerie still manages to strikes an emotional chord with even the sternest of listeners though being a concept album, A Crow… becomes a different beast when you dig beneath the surface.
The last poem in a newly published book by Gary Snyder manages to deliver the album’s message. A warning precedes Go Now as Snyder exclaims “you don’t want to read this/reader,/be warned, turn back/from the darkness/go now,” before he goes onto described the raw realness of watching his wife be absorbed an inescapable death caused by a terminal illness. It’s no surprise that this poem became an ever present thought in the mind of Elverum as he watched the transformative cancer horror that engulfed his wife, cartoonist and musician Geneviève Castrée.
It’s no surprise that A Crow Looked At Me predominantly deals with the theme of death: throughout the record’s running time, Elverum keeps tracks of how long it has been since his wife passed with etchings underneath each title track in addition to outright noting the number of days, keeping Castrée very omnipresent.
Her presence isn’t solely felt by Elverum‘s words of her but by the music itself. Elverum has said in a statement regarding the album that “it was recorded in the same room that Geneviève died, using mostly her instruments, her guitar, her bass, her pick, her amp, her old family accordion, writing the words on her paper, looking out the same window”. Everything about the album feels very minimalistic and isolated which may sound boring and borderline dull but when taking into consideration the therapeutic and documenting nature of the whole album, it feels like the only way an album of this kind should be recorded.
The real driving force of A Crow… isn’t how it sounds but what the record inevitably conveys: a portrait of loss and vacantness that finds itself one foot in the present and the other in the past. While it’s a very sad and depressing album, the way that it can be delivered is sometimes beautiful by definition. After all, Elverum says it best on the infold of the vinyl fold gate: “These cold mechanics of sickness and loss are real and inescapable, and can bring an alienating, detached sharpness. But it is not the thing I want to remember”.
This is most apparent when Elverum‘s understanding of Geneviève sadly passing away is described as swimming on the aptly titled “Swims“, proposed by none other than his daughter. Even when the two scatter her ashes on Seaweed, there’s an unshakeable feeling of positivity that radiates when observations are made about the flowers and Canada geese that are present which is all lovingly finished off with the lines “I poured out your ashes on it/ I guess so you can watch the sunset/ but the truth is I don’t think of that ash as you/ you are the sunset“. Moments on this album help A Crow… to avoid falling into being an LP full of sobbing and misery, instead exploring the magnitude of emotions and crushing realities that “real death” brings.
While the sound, lyrics, and themes that fuel A Crow…help to make it the magnificent record that is, it’s hard to shake off that what it represents it what helps to make it such a vital listen. That’s not to say that the record is only good because it is about losing a loved one and deserves sympathy points for it, no, not at all. Instead, A Crow… manages to rise above some limitations of music much like last year’s Blackstar: it explores death both depressingly and beautifully, making the issue far more 3D and lifelike despite being solely audio, while also acting as a Memorium to someone special.
Few things in this life are guaranteed but those that are deserve to be explored as elegantly as they are here.
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