“Staring Death in the Face”
Mount Eerie’s Beautiful Tribute
to Death & What Follows
words by jordan gorsuch
“When you said bye and closed my apartment door behind you
A heavy feeling fell upon me, it hit me in a very real way
That we’ll live the rest of our lives together
And that gives me so much happiness and comfort
But it also hit me harder than ever before that one day we’ll say goodbye for a final time…”
-Sun Kil Moon
The person I love most in the world often has panic attacks about the safety of her family, the health of her father, about me passing away in twisted metal – her own mortality. She has often disclosed to me if I were ever to die that her life would be shattered; that she would never be able to ever, ever move on. I believe her. It breaks my heart to picture her stunted in life, alone and hurt…her heart guarded for the rest of her life. We all wish that we will only die when we are ready, but the sad truth is that many people will pass away before their time. Any precautions we take will just erode. Time is fleeting.
Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum is living in a waking nightmare that we all fear. A bottomless chasm that will never be filled. Geneviève Castrée was an accomplished musician, a wife, a mother…and I am sure she was so much more. She is gone now, and her presence is felt in every aspect of Mount Eerie’s latest record, A Crow Looked At Me. This is Elverum’s open-letter tribute to her, an 11-song album that details loss and grief tiredly and pensively, but with an unbelievable level of clarity.
Mount Eeerie has accumulated a massive catalogue over the past decade, featuring a diverse and expansive backlog that transcends lo-fi. 2013’s Sauna was a monumental shift in sound for Elverum, with an increased devotion to atmosphere and towering textures. Abrupt acoustic guitar chords replace the sonic diversity found on his previous album, existential poetry substituted for a no-bullshit lyrical style that drops all pretense and delivers heart-achingly detailed narratives. Phil’s lyrics resemble minimalistic musings that wouldn’t be out of place in a private journal, his tone agonizingly matter-of-fact. “I watched you die in this room, then I gave your clothes away…I’m sorry.” The resulting melodies feel like loose half-thoughts, nonchalantly placed together to ensure that the melodies disappear from the listener’s mind after the track concludes. This isn’t music to sing along with, it’s meant to be heard and soaked in with its sobering honesty. As Phil in a recent interview:
“This new album is barely music.
It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.”
“Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about back before I knew my way around these hospitals,” Elverum calmly reveals on “Emptiness Pt. 2.” He describes her absence as a scream. He imagines a pure, soft blanket of snow that can wipe away his reality; a new world in the confines of its white canvas, a makeshift Tabula Rasa. Hearty bass lines guide Elverum’s hushed vocals while shifting guitar chords set a languished pace on the somber “Seaweed.” Elverum takes their daughter to a plot of land where the three of them planned on building a house, his wife’s ashes in tow. He struggles to remember small details like if Geneviève liked Canadian geese or foxgloves. Humans strive for meaning, we starve for an explanation for our existence and Elverum’s mind is wishing that flock of one hundred geese on the beach or the over-abundance of a flower is a sign from the universe, or better yet, his wife. He pours out the ashes as the sun sets in the distance, but he doesn’t think of the dust as his companion for thirteen years. “You are the sunset,” Elverum sings sweetly over a resounding piano stroke as the song fades into the ether.
“I watched you die in this room / Then I gave your clothes away,” Phil croons softly on the sublime “Ravens,” joined by compelling jagged guitar chords. “I’m sorry.” he concludes after a sad pause. He runs from his house, the ghost of his wife under the boat he guides to the island that held a promise of a future that can never pass. “Lifeless pictures” of her hang in his halls, she drifts into his dreams, her presence felt in the rooms of their “haunted house.” “Death is real” is a mantra that is repeated throughout the album, a reminder that the place that his beloved went to is not temporary, it is permanent. Elverum experiences cognitive dissonance in his grief. He keeps waiting for his wife to return, as if she stepped out for some groceries. When an autumn wind blows open the door, he expectantly turns to catch her figure, to see anything instead of an empty doorway.
“Forest Fire” opens with a sea of guitar chords iridescently at odds with Elverum’s devastating summer. A miasma of a forest fire’s smoke feels like the end of the world, a lonely percussive hit sounding off every few seconds. A ceiling fan staves off the heat as Phil clears out Geneviève’s belongings in hopes that it will stop the room from “whispering.” Phil lashes out against a central theme of his artistic output with a single line:
“The devastation is not natural or good
You do belong here. I reject nature, I disagree.”
It can be hard not to let your suffering define you as a person. Even more difficult is proving to outsiders that you can be whole again. “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” Elverum asks while struggling to cope with being a living container of his wife’s essence. She is a chasm he will never close.
Phil fills the album with vignettes of Geneviève singing, rocking on her “squeaking chair,” the reality of him picking up her underwear, taking out the trash with her toothbrush and her “dried out, bloody, end-of-life tissues.” He even cherishes a moment of shared silence, a small eternity, a spot of time. Elverum often wonders if his wife is watching over them through the form of different animals – ravens, crows, and even an ordinary housefly. Each encounter is fleeting, and ends with a resolve to let them fly away.
“Soria Moria” is a place of Norwegian folklore; it is often described as a solitary journey that ends in perfect happiness. The terminus of this journey is the life he shared with Geneviève. The track in question is the most instrumentally dense and diverse on an album that relies on subtlety to enhance the impact of the Phil’s beautifully earnest words and vice versa. Distorted guitars pulse beneath sweet acoustic chords while Phil delivers one of the best melodies of his career:
“All past selves and future possibilities on hold
Well I tore through the dark on the freeway
The old yearning burning in me.”
“Where will our final goodbye be? What condition will I be in? And how will your health be? Are we even sure we’ll be in the same place when one of us has to go?” Mark Kozelek asks on his sprawling new album, Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood, before concluding: “I don’t like goodbyes.” It can be hard not to picture Elverum’s final goodbye to Geneviève, but it likely does not matter. The album concludes with Elverum watching their daughter sleep, the word “crow” on her lips. His grief resurrects his wife, flickers of a life once lived – “And there she was.” True mourning is a flat circle, but it is not some futile rat race of suffering, no, it is in that very repetition that puts us back together. We never know when that final goodbye will take place, even with a known terminal illness lurking on the horizon. We can only pick up the pieces that are left in the wake.
In the emptiness, in the lack felt long, long after…we find life.
‘A Crow Looked At Me‘ is out now.
Buy it here