I’m gonna be real with you guys for a minute. I honestly don’t know if I should even be talking about this album, at least not in the way I usually talk about music here. Because of the circumstances surrounding the creation of this new album from Mount Eerie, I have this feeling that it would be exploitative to try and deconstruct the inner workings of A Crow Looked At Me in the manner that I do on every other album, because this is one of the most revealing, emotionally vulnerable records I think I’ve ever heard.
Without getting into too much detail, this album is about the death of songwriter Phil Elverum’s wife, and the way he articulates the feelings he’s going through is open to the point of being uncomfortable. Being someone that listens to a lot of cartoonishly dark music, I can sometimes become somewhat desensitized to portrayals of death in music and media in general. It takes a lot to break that seal of apathy. I couldn’t possibly anticipate the way this album hit me. A Crow Looked At Me is an intense experience. I don’t mean it lightly when I say that this album was really hard for me to listen to at points, and that’s not due any sort of sonic extremity; this record takes a real life tragedy and forces you to confront it head on. There’s no extended metaphors or abstractions anywhere on this record. It’s all meant to be taken literally and it may get too close for comfort for some listeners. That being said, despite how horrible the situation surrounding it is, this is an artistic achievement unique among any release I’ve heard this year.
Few records have ever managed to be as evocative or relatable as this one. The detail and articulate nature of Elverum’s lyrics are such that you can vividly imagine every single scenario he describes, and how clear he makes that pain is the biggest part of why A Crow Looked At Me will test your will to listen through all the way. The music and delivery suggest that numbness is all that’s left. It’s incredibly quiet, sparse, and somewhat monotone, but the real heart breakers lie in the little details, like how he still receives mail with his wife’s name on it in the days following her passing. There are several moments on this record where I will admit that I visibly flinched as a particularly sharp turn of phrase hit.
We’ve heard all the sad breakup songs that can certainly make us feel the author’s emotions, but the heightened sense of reality and, perhaps even more potently, finality, on this record make all those aforementioned songs sound quite trivial and forced by comparison.
And this is where I need to get into why I think it can be problematic for me to discuss this album. For most, myself included, music is viewed as a form of entertainment. We can get heavily emotionally involved and analyze why it makes us feel the way we do, but it’s still a form of entertainment, created by the artist for the enjoyment of the listener. In the case of this album, however, it just feels wrong to derive any sort of enjoyment from the suffering that this guy is obviously going through. I mean, it feels like I’ve stolen someone’s diary, as if it’s a violation to be clued in on some of the extremely personal information present in the music. The obvious counter argument to all this is why would someone release an album like this if they weren’t okay with the public being privy to your thoughts?
The answer to that, I’m not so sure of. It’s not unheard of for an artist to record an album and then not release it, the most archetypical example being Brian Wilson’s Smile, an album that was never released until nearly forty years after it was recorded. A more modern example is Eros, the lost Deftones album that to this day hasn’t seen a release out of respect for bassist Chi Cheng, who was in a coma for several years before passing away due to a car accident. It’s usually because of some sort of trauma that these records are held back from the public, and A Crow Looked At Me could have become one of those albums, but it didn’t. I can only speculate as to why, and to be honest I probably shouldn’t. Elverum is quite the prolific artist, and definitely has a strong community of fans backing him, so perhaps that communal element is something that would help process the last year or so. Like I said, I can only speculate, and, whatever his motivation is, I think the result is something amazingly powerful and special. I’m not going to pretend that this is gonna be an album that I will listen to very often from here on out, but I can say that it is something that will stick with me for a long time.