Of all the albums in my top 20, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is by far the album I’ve listened to the least. That isn’t to reflect on its quality in any way. I’ve listened to A Crow Looked at Me perhaps a total of four times all year, for the simple reason that it is one of the most emotionally taxing records I have ever heard.
This is an album that deals in grief. But not the sort of grief that finds expression in lofty metaphors about The Beyond. This is an album about Real Death, and was recorded by Phil Elverum just a matter of weeks after he lost his wife to cancer. Listening to it is like vicariously experiencing that grief: through Elverum’s very direct and poetic lyrics he takes the listener on a painful odyssey through the process of grieving, as devastatingly emotional as it is horrifyingly mundane.
Surprisingly, it is the latter of those two which proves to be the most affecting. The moment where Elverum confronts the need to continue existing, even through unimaginable pain, while taking out the garbage at night. The moment where he is forced to go through his wife’s clothes, and throw away her underwear. The packages and letters that still arrive with her name on.
A Crow Looked at Me is full of these small, crushing details. It hits hardest in the moments you least expect it to: the quiet moments, the moments in between. Musically, the record is as loose and direct as its lyrical content. These eleven songs are played on spare arrangements of mostly guitar and piano, each feeling unmeditated to the point of improvisation. Words and chords spill over each other gently, the emotion pouring out without a thought for structure.
The album feels free and organic because of this, despite taking death and decay for the entirety of its subject matter. And it also feels, truthfully, like an album meant to be appreciated at a distance of decades, not months. A Crow Looked at Me is the kind of album that you only turn to in times of need, but in those moments it has a power that few other records can match.
As draining as it can be to sit through the record’s full length, it is hard not to come out of the other side with a sober appreciation for all the things, and people, you’re lucky enough to still have. And the very tiny glimmer of hope which is found in the album’s final track is surely to say: if it is possible to live through this, then it is possible to live through anything.