VANCOUVER – “Death is real.” These words open up A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum’s latest album under his moniker Mount Eerie. From this first moment on, it doesn’t let up. The record’s eleven songs centre around Elverum’s experience of grief and trauma after losing his wife Geneviève to pancreatic cancer last year, documenting his process in careful detail. It’s a difficult — but worthwhile — listen.
“I can’t compare it to any other things I’ve ever done,” Elverum says about recording and releasing the record. “For me, I don’t really put it in the same category as my other work or my other songs, which were entertainment. It’s not entertainment.”
While the album shares many musical cues with Elverum’s other work, it’s set apart by its minimal instrumentation, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and nearly absent production: each song sounds like you’re listening to him play it in a quiet room with you. “It happened out of necessity, because my life is crazy and I don’t have the opportunity to fiddle around in the studio for months,” he says. “I could just take five years to make a record, but I needed to get this one out, just for emotional reasons. That’s why it’s so sparse.”
Throughout the album, there are moments that hit like gut punches: the lyrics describe Elervum’s reluctance to throw his late wife’s clothes away, searching questions from their daughter, awkward silences in grocery stores. For Elverum, these details are perhaps an attempt at finding a truth beyond metaphor. “I sort of felt like disowning all of that and just focusing down on, well, what is happening in my household right now, day to day? Just talking about washing the dishes, whatever — truth, simple reality.
“These songs are just me expressing what’s going on in real time. I wrote them in real time, and they’re me just focusing on the present moment around me.”
That’s not to say that the album lacks symbolism. It’s full of images of birds, all of which seem to exist as omens — Canada geese, crows, ravens. And much like his other records, the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, specifically of Elverum’s home in Anacortes, WA and his frequent visits to Haida Gwaii, loom large. “Even when I’m making albums that aren’t making geographical markers or landscape words, people say that just the sounds themselves sound like this place,” Elverum notes. “I don’t know how that works, but I acknowledge that it’s probably true.”
For Elverum’s upcoming show in Vancouver, he chose the Christ Church Cathedral, an unconventional venue that will inevitably suit the songs perfectly. “These songs are so quiet, and they don’t work in usual venues, it just isn’t the right atmosphere. Most venues are geared towards people, you know, enjoying themselves [laughs]. That’s not my intention.”
He stops, rethinking his statement. “I think that there’s something redeeming about the songs, something beautiful,” he says. “That’s what I was going for, even though the world in which they were made is a very harsh and traumatic experience. They’re not entertainment, but they’re enjoyable.”
Reflecting on how his life has changed since releasing the record, Elverum is hesitant to call it a turning point. “It does feel different. But I think that’s just because time is progressing — every day feels different in the process of digesting this trauma,” he says. “If you’re asking whether this album was an emotional landmark or a barrier between two different eras, the answer is no. It feels more like part of a continuum.”
While the album might seem like a difficult one to follow, Elverum is already working on new music — in fact, as we spoke, he was sitting at his writing desk, crafting a new song. “I’ve been writing a lot more songs, and I’ll probably play some new songs at the Vancouver show. They’re in the same category as the songs from A Crow Looked at Me — pretty wordy and specific.
“I don’t know what’s next. I’ll just go with the wind. I would like to make some really loud music again — that sounds fun to me.”Christ Church Cathedral, Mount Eerie