Every track in “A Crow Looked at Me” was written by Phil Elverum. (Photo courtesy of Mount Eerie)
In 2015 Phil Elverum and Geneviève Castrée had a child. In that same year, Castrée was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A year and a half after her original diagnosis, she died of cancer. The couple had been married for 13 years before her tragic death.
“A Crow Looked At Me” is more than just a look into Elverum’s life after his wife’s death. The honesty and impatience of losing your wife are demonstrated throughout the album. Elverum sings over droning rhythms on most songs on Crow. The album has an ebb and flow of similar songs that consist mostly of acoustic guitar and some keyboard or drum machines in the background. Music is not the focus of this album however.
In “Crow”, Elverum captures the emotions of losing a loved one in the most honest way. It’s not generalized or commercialized for audiences. It’s just heartbreaking. Elverum’s soft, saddened voice makes the album all that more effective. The stories he chooses to put on the album are sometimes about everyday tasks that are now impossible. Others are more dark and hard to imagine for those who have never lost someone.
There is a great deal of palpable pain that can be felt on the album. On entering a room hoping to see his wife only to be greeted with emptiness, Elverum sings in “Real Death”, “All fails/ My knees fail/ My brain fails/ Words Fail.” He then breaks down on his front steps after still getting mail with his wife’s name on it after her death. “Real Death” is just preparation for the heartbreak displayed on the rest of the album.
Every song on “Crow” could bring one to tears. On the first listen, the album is shocking and upsetting. It doesn’t get easier with each listen, but it’s not supposed to be easy. A couple songs on the album mention how long it has been since Castrée died from when the song was written. There is this constant reminder than Elverum used this album to cope with his wife’s passing. On “Raven”, he forgets sometimes that she is gone forever with lines, “When you get back from wherever it is that you’ve gone / But then I remember death is real.”
Sometimes Elverum does not forget his wife is gone, but imagines living in another universe where she is alive still. “When I Take Out The Garbage At Night” describes Elverum’s thoughts when doing just that. When he leaves the home at night, maybe this all isn’t real. Maybe it’ll be another life he’ll be transported to. This is not the case. When he turns to go back into his house, he knows that his wife is dead. The reminders of death on this album are beautiful and draw tears.
Constantly thinking about his wife, Elverum sometimes believes she is still there. When a door closes, he thinks maybe she is back and death is not real, but after a moment of hope, death is real. “Toothbrush / Trash” has a moment where he sings “October wind blows / It makes a door close,” and then a door closing is heard. This moment just worked. Elverum makes the listener feel as though they’re part of his story. It’s the only time on the album where a noise is heard replicating what he says, but it’s beautiful.
Elverum goes on to mention his daughter multiple times. “Seaweed” finds Elverum and his year and a half old daughter on a beach where the family was going to live if not for his wife’s death. He can’t remember if the geese on the beach or the flowers around them were important to his wife or not. He debates whether any of these things matter then sings, “And what could anything mean / In this crushing absurdity.” Again, Elverum captures loss in such a depressing and honest way.
“A Crow Looked At Me” is not easy to listen to. It’s not meant for parties or for gatherings. The best way to listen to “Crow” is alone, in the dark with over-the-ear headphones. If one really wants to feel what Elverum has masterfully orchestrated, they need to be totally focused on his words and allow yourself to cry. Because after listening to this album, they will cry.