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Mount Eerie confronts the pains of loss on ‘A Crow Looked at Me’

(Serguei/Flickr)

Words often fail to describe the lingering pain a person feels following the death of a loved one. “Death is real/Someone’s there and then they’re not/And it’s not for singing about/It’s not for making into art/When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb,” sings Mount Eerie Phil Elverum on “Real Death,” the opening song from his solo project Mount Eerie’s new record, “A Crow Looked at Me.”

A few months before writing and recording this record, Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée, died of pancreatic cancer not long after the birth of their daughter, Agathe. The songs on “A Crow Looked at Me,” released March 24, are Elverum’s catharsis through song. They are the accumulation of the thoughts, memories and feelings that had been swirling about in his head since the moment that his partner slipped away in his own arms.

It’s therefore more striking that this new record opens with a statement that belittles the ability that art has in articulating a proper reaction toward death, since “A Crow Looked at Me” seemingly proves that the best way for an artist to move on from any tumultuous time is through creating art itself. Elverum’s statement is harsh, but following the loss of his loved one, he likely felt that there was little room for beating about the bush regarding the intent of this recording.

The songs within “A Crow Looked at Me” are among the most beautiful about love and loss that a listener will ever hear, yet no matter what they accomplish, they can never come near to displaying the devastation that Elverum feels about the death of his wife. “Real Death” is an opening statement that cements this inability to cover the breadth of his devastation through art straight away.

As lovers of music and art, the best way to grasp what makes this album so moving is by looking into its tragic story. Who was Geneviève Castrée, and what was it about her that Elverum may have loved so much? Listening to her incredible voice, which she displayed in her work in the rock band Ô Paon, gives a glimmering insight into this soul that Elverum loved so much. On the song “Sainte Patronne de Rien Pantoute,” from the 2010 Ô Paon record “Courses,” Castrée’s soft, beautiful signing feels like a somber meditation. It’s something that helps paint a vivid picture for the listener of the album’s subject.

“A Crow Looked at Me” is unlike anything in Mount Eerie’s discography. Mount Eerie is a project that has always attempted to create an otherworldly atmosphere with expansive sounds and production. Its music has always been beautiful, but never has Elverum engaged his listeners on a level as personal as that which can be heard in “A Crow Looked at Me.” That personal connection can partially be attributed to the record featuring no band whatsoever. Elverum, carrying the weight of Mount Eerie on his shoulders, wrote and recorded these songs alone in the same spaces where his wife used to dwell.

On the record, Elverum chooses not to express his love for his dead wife in abstractions. He states as a matter of fact the events that occurred following Geneviève’s burial day and recollects moments of the past that bring forth new revelations and omens as he writes about them. A crow, the dark sky, untouched mail and their baby daughter are all things that take on a different form on this record.

Artists have and will confront the subject of death again and again in the same way that all human beings eventually must. For example, the great HBO television series “Six Feet Under” meditated on the existential implications of life’s brevity for seven full seasons. More recently, Nick Cave’s 2016 record, “Skeleton Tree,” touched on the pain he felt following the death of his teenage son.

The impact that the life of Geneviève had on Phil Elverum has inspired these songs that are among the most touching and moving released in recent memory. If you were skeptical about love’s existence before hearing “A Crow Looked at Me,” following the record’s final song, you will no longer be.

William Plotnick can be reached at wplotnick@umass.edu.

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