At the start of A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum sings that ‘death is real / and it’s not for singing about / it’s not for making into art’. The album that ensues serves as a testament to that sobering and somewhat paradoxical lyric. This is a conceptual record whose single and only theme is death: the very recent and traumatic death of Phil’s wife to cancer. And it ranks among the most emotionally raw pieces of art I have ever experienced which tackle the subject of grief.
I don’t get the sense that any of the songs contained within this album were planned, premeditated, or even edited very much. They have little that resembles typical song structure, and their delicately sung/spoken vocals spill out without any consideration for metre, rhyme, or imagery. Instead, each song feels like a vessel, a musical time capsule full of memories, moments, and brutally immediate thoughts which are processed as they are buried in the ground.
There are moments of poetic beauty and horror, but they emerge from the real, day-to-day moments in Elverum’s life following his wife’s death, and not from his imagination: The backpack his wife ordered for when her daughter begins school, knowing she would most likely not be alive to see it. The hundreds of Canada geese gathered on the beach when Elverum takes his daughter to scatter her ashes. Confronting the necessity of continuing to live while taking out the garbage.
The moment which personally touched me the most, though, was ‘Forest Fire’, in which Phil describes a fire burning not far from his home as a ‘natural and cleansing devastation’, and then awfully compares it to the destruction in his own life: ‘When I am kneeling in the heat / Throwing out your underwear / The devastation is not natural or good / You do belong here / I disagree’.
A Crow Looked At Me is full of devastating moments such as this, moments that are all the more crushing for how banal and real they are. These are things that almost all of us will have to experience at some point in our lives, but they are all too often obscured behind a veil of metaphor and allusion.
There is no veil to be found here. A Crow Looked At Me is an exacting and unadorned look at what Elverum called on his Bandcamp page the ‘cold mechanics of sickness and loss’. It is a hyper-personal meditation on death that evokes powerful empathy in the listener and thus becomes universal. For those who have experienced grief, A Crow Looked at Me will be both a freshly opened wound and a balm. For those who haven’t, it is a painful yet beautiful glimpse at how the living are left to confront and process real death.