Grasping at the Echoes: An Interview with Phil Elverum

Mount Eerie’s “A Crow Looked At Me” and the Struggle of Articulating Real Death

By Jeremy Bertsche

“It’s dumb,” sings Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum on the first track of his devastating, heartfelt new record, “A Crow Looked At Me”, “and I don’t want to learn anything from this.” Yet just as quickly as the most thematically naked track, “Real Death,” eschews the saccharine and redemptive shortcuts we commonly use to render a loved one’s death palatable, the song clings to one reassuring bit of candor (cliche perhaps, but for good reason): “I love you.”  Elverum speaks the words as the song comes to a sudden, unforeseen halt.

Elverum, who has released music under the moniker Mount Eerie for more than a decade, first became known for his work as The Microphones, whose gem “The Glow Pt. 2” put Olympia and K Records in the national spotlight back in 2001. Sixteen years later, with “A Crow Looked at Me”, Elverum’s Mount Eerie has crafted an album that is as sparse and direct as The Glow Pt. 2 was sonically textured and ornate.

“We’re not equipped to talk about death,” Elverum told me when we met two weeks ago as he prepared for his show at Obsidian. As we talked, he calmly stacked Mount Eerie and Microphones vinyls, as well as some of his original art. “It’s kind of a thing that people don’t talk about.”

Elverum lost his wife, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer last summer. She was only 35, and Elverum was left with their young daughter in their suddenly drafty and seemingly empty house in Anacortes, Washington. He was wrestling with raw tragedy, battling to make sense of something that, by every definition, just makes no sense. “A Crow Looked At Me”, released a mere eight months after Geneviève passed, is the raw, unfiltered account of his struggle.

It was less than a month after Genevieve’s death that Elverum started writing music again. He put out of his mind whether he would release any of it or not. The song-writing was therapy. His guitar strums, his humble croons, were the inevitable product of a person who, as he put it, has “always been making something,” has always been “engaged in creativity.”

Elverum’s work has always balanced on the precipice of mortality, but until now he has only flirted with the concept of death, as if shying from making eye contact. “I used to be hung up on understanding and misunderstanding,” Elverum told me. “I had all these songs about me being misunderstood, always trying to clarify and re-clarify—but now I feel like that’s all out the window. I’m no longer trying to say a metaphor. No decorations, no metaphors or observation.”

When he ultimately decided to release the music—songs created with Genevieve’s own instruments, recorded in the room in which she died: what emerged was something far from anything he had created previously, and, as many critics have observed, far from anything recorded on the subject of death in recent memory. Where other albums tip-toe around such fire, imparting only its warmth, this album aims for the flames head on–and comes out the other side to remind the listener how very real those flames are. “Very little of it was premeditated, it just came out naturally,” Elverum told me. “I made the decision at one point to just say everything, to not put any thoughts toward restraint.” It is a practice he admired in his favorite recent author, Norwegian literary phenom Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the “My Struggle” volumes. “It’s scary to take that leap, but it’s worth it.”

Jon Caramanica of The New York Times recently questioned whether the tragic, explicit, and frank narrative-based storytelling in the songs of “A Crow Looked At Me” could even, in all politeness, be called “art.” Art, he noted, “typically connotes an interest in aesthetics,” something it’s hard to imagine Elverum was thinking about when crafting “A Crow Looked At Me”. The album resembles a difficult conversation one might have with a close friend, or perhaps with someone in one’s grieving group, far more than it resembles albums such as Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie and Lowell” or The Antler’s “Hospice”.  Those musicians’ works have been likened to Elverum’s hitherto unassuming indie-folk strains. But unlike the quiet, contemplative melancholy of those two similarly themed albums, nothing in Elverum’s latest work is quiet besides his quavering voice and the hushed, subtly textured sounds of Genevieve’s guitar. “A Crow Looked At Me” is nothing but loud in its forthright and unflinching attempt to articulate death. “You do belong here,” he sings in “Forest Fire”, before his voice almost leaves all melody behind to protest: “I reject nature, I disagree.”

Other songs capture the grieving process differently. “Seaweed” is a brief vignette describing Elverum, his young daughter in tow, on his way to spread Genevieve’s ashes. One senses Elverum struggling desperately to find some solace, some meaning in symbolism and motif: “I can’t remember/were you into Canada Geese?” he asks. “Is it significant/these hundreds on the beach?/ Or were they just hungry/for mid-migration seaweed?” Over and again Elverum succumbs to a realization that this is death, its meaning ever-elusive. As he intones in “Emptiness Pt. 2”, “There is nothing to learn/ Her absence is a scream saying nothing.”

At one point in our interview, Elverum placed a stack of “The Glow Pt. 2” records on the merchandise table. He paused, looking for the right words, any words that would do. “It’s not for art,” he said, echoing a line from the album. “It’s this raw, superhuman… I don’t know.” He appeared frustrated with his inability to articulate in words what his album so movingly conveys. “Real death, like actual death, is unsingable.”