“Everybody, it’s gonna happen. You know it’s gonna happen. It happens every day. Billions and billions of people have already died. You too will die. Sing along with us, won’t you?”
– Daniel Johnston, “Funeral Home”
We are always dying. We die because we fight over shiny stuff. We die because we drive with our eyes on our screens or swallow the wrong things. We die because we extract ancient dead things from the ground that in turn pollute our lungs and synthesize the hydrocarbons that do us harm. We die because our country told us to, because sometimes our stomachs are denied nutrition, because sometimes it’s easier to die than to engage in culture.
Of course, we most often die because our cells stop dividing — a phenomenon we equate with ageing. We get old, we die. But sometimes these cells express the opposite: uncontrollable growth and division, which can then lead to a lump, the potential for spreading, and then, sometimes, death.
When my wife told me in October 2013 that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, my first thought arrived as a question. It wasn’t about what type of breast cancer, how advanced it was, or which treatments would be required. It wasn’t about how to tell our son or our family or our friends. None of that crossed my mind. As I stood there shocked and unable to mutter any sort of consoling platitude, wrapping my arms around her as she sobbed, the only thought I had in my mind was: Is this person I’m hugging right now going to die?
My wife is fortunately still alive, but Phil Elverum’s is not.
On July 9, 2016, Geneviève Castrée — Phil Elverum’s wife, artist/musician, the mother to their daughter, and his 13-year companion — died from pancreatic cancer. A Crow Looked At Me is Phil’s open-letter tribute to her, an 11-song album that details loss and grief wearily and pensively, but with a clarity of mind. Similar aesthetically to works like Dawn and Little Bird Flies Into A Big Black Cloud, Phil presents his thoughts here with stunning candor, using just a laptop and a microphone to capture his characteristically amorphous guitar lines and thin yet comforting balm of a voice. It was recorded in the room that Geneviève died in and performed mostly on her instruments. The lyrics were written on her paper.
But the specifics of its sounds and details of its creation feel as irrelevant and unimportant as any “review” of it (which is why the rating above means absolutely nothing). This isn’t just an album about death. It’s an album that lives death. Death, here, isn’t simply a cessation of bodily functions; it’s an implied process: the process of dying, the process of grieving, the process of performing these processes of death and grief. It’s a testament to how death paradoxically roots itself in life, smudging our desire to concretize abstractions and couching our anxieties in the very human tendency toward wonderment: What is death? What is life? Why does her body look this way? Why do I feel bitter? What do I do now?
Rather than wailing existential poetry about the universe and anthropomorphizing the elements through his typically keen, self-aware wisdom, Phil has adopted a no-bullshit, matter-of-fact lyrical approach whose trailing musings and minimalistic narratives resemble those of a diary, a memento mori that acts more like a generous reminder of death’s impact than an artful expression of it. The resulting lyrics are shockingly simplified, but utterly disarming because of it: “I can’t get the image out of my head/ Of when I held you right there/ And watched you die,” he sings on “Swims” over swaying electic guitar, strummed as if it were a nylon. On the gorgeous “Ravens,” he softly croons over broken chords: “I watched you die in this room, then I gave your clothes away/ I’m sorry.”
Because Phil deliberately foregoes using metaphors and “big-picture reflections,” much of the album’s strength lies in the excruciating specificity of the domestic and the mundane: old underwear, bloody tissues, her squeaking chair, taking out the garbage, logging time and place with a journalistic rather than artistic flair. The latter loosely brackets off various moments in Phil’s grieving process, as if to ensure their transience. Reflection here is more about remembering than ruminating, Phil shifting from lyrics like “Our daughter is one and a half/ You have been dead 11 days” (“Seaweed”) to “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” (“My Chasm”). There are some truly sublime moments — the verses in “Ravens,” the refrain of “Soria Moria” — that join some of Phil’s greatest melodies, but it mostly sounds like he’s feeling his way through the chords and, ultimately, letting the words shape the songs.
As a result, the melodies feel decidedly less worked over, oftentimes arriving loose and lopsided, almost indistinct. This approach, coupled with his avoidance of the towering, expansive textures of his recent work, ensures we don’t get too absorbed by our own thoughts, that we don’t get overly seduced by its musicality lest we forget that “death is real,” the album’s pseudo mantra. Which is fitting: we don’t sing along to this album, we cry to it. There’s an entrenched realism in play here, a constant, weary reminder of our soggy corporeality and our oftentimes futile attempts to transcend it. Because, for Phil, it’s not just that grief flails under a “crushing absurdity,” but that it also manifests physically, with knees failing, brains failing, faces contorting, bodies collapsing. Geneviève, too, is not just a dead wife and dead mother. Before becoming “burnt bones,” “dust,” and “ashes in a jar,” Geneviève is depicted as a dying face, a body transforming, a wife chemically reduced to something “jaundiced and fucked.”
Because cancer kills, sure, but the destruction happens over time. I don’t know what it was like in Phil’s household, but ours was constantly on alert, self-isolating ourselves from the world because we were terrified of germs that could derail any progress. There were unexpected allergic reactions and multiple emergency trips, fallen hair gathering in the corners of the wood floors, trivial fights and overbearing guilt and bitterness that we are still working to get through. Intimacy was replaced by hospital gowns and premature goodnights, the body ravaged by toxic medicines, the body dismembered and, later, reconstructed. It all weighed on our then three-year-old son, who at first couldn’t understand why Mom was always sleeping and why she couldn’t play with him.
But time can be an asset, and on this album and in my own life, it acts not to heal, per se, but to deteriorate memory, to exploit its imprecision in order to make us remember less clearly. Death implies replacement, substitution, a clearing of space for someone else to breathe the air we breathe or buy the shit we buy or do the other ridiculous/awesome/mostly ridiculous things that humans do. But trauma, devastation, loss — they’re not things that just go away if you’re still breathing. They linger, reduced in severity over time only because they become less functional to the social whole and therefore less necessary to dwell on once grief is internalized, once it changes our composition, effectively allowing us to be “post-human in a past that keeps happening ahead of you,” as Joanne Kyger put it in the poem gracing the album’s cover (RIP Joanne Kyger, who sadly died this week). It never feels right to “move on” from death, whatever that means, but the world does anyway, seemingly indifferent to our pain. So, we too join in — sometimes without realizing it, sometimes with an unbelievable awareness. As Phil sings on “Toothbrush/Trash”:
“Today I just felt it for the first time
three months and one day after you died.
I realized that these photographs we have of you
are slowly replacing the subtle familiar
memory of what it’s like
to know you’re in the other room,
to hear you singing on the stairs,
a movement, a pinecone, your squeaking chair,
the quiet untreasured in-between times,
the actual experience of you here.
I can feel these memories escaping
colonized by photos, narrowed down, told.
My mind erasing.”
I took a couple trips recently, one to visit my cousin and another to visit my aunt. But both trips were actually painful, awkward goodbyes: roughly a week after each visit, my cousin and my aunt would be dead, both due to cancer.
“Auntie Shenshen died,” I told my son shortly after it happened.
He paused, then replied, softly: “Don’t tell me that kind of stuff.”
It’s not easy to hear about death, which is of course why A Crow Looked At Me is a challenging listen. Because unlike some of Phil’s earlier work, the album isn’t a simple aestheticization of death. “This new album is barely music,” said Phil in an interview with Pitchfork. “It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.” But although the lyrics are ostensibly about his own experiences with death, Phil’s documentation from the frontlines of tragedy acts, in the end, as a selfless reflection of love, carrying Geneviève’s memory in and through song, letting his admiration for her override anxiety about who he is now and how he and his daughter fit in a world without her. As he put it in a note released with the album:
The idea that I could have a self or personal preferences or songs eroded down into an absurd old idea leftover from a more self-indulgent time before I was a hospital-driver, a caregiver, a child-raiser, a griever. I am open now, and these songs poured out quickly in the fall, watching the days grey over and watching the neighbors across the alley tear down and rebuild their house. I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known.
As listeners, we are implicated through knowing, with the understanding that interpretation and value judgments here are essentially irrelevant. The album defies being used as an accessory for identity construction, and the words — most of which are written to Geneviève herself, except the faint glimmer of hope expressed in the final track to his daughter — are too direct, too intimate, too real to foster casual or interpretive listening. With A Crow Looked At Me, Phil — who had kept much of his family life private until last year’s GoFundMe campaign — has laid himself bare, sharing a dark, devastating moment in his family’s life with an open vulnerability that’s complemented by the strength and generosity required to give voice to it in the first place.
Over many songs and many albums, Phil’s primary aim has been to communicate grand ideas, to be understood, and his own perception that he’s been unable to do so without misunderstanding has always haunted how he writes — sometimes awkwardly so. As he put it in an autobiographical essay, “[T]he truth is that I am sensitive to any thematic or lyrical misunderstandings because I actually do want to get my idea across, beyond just me, and I continue to try to get my blade sharper.” But by plummeting into the depths of his own cavernous pain on this release, relinquishing the obscuring metaphors and telling “everything as it is,” he has transformed personal grief into something like a universal sorrow, grounded in a loving, caring lucidity unlike any of his other works.
Those who have suffered through loss will have much to relate with on A Crow Looked At Me, but it won’t be a salve for your despair. There are no instructions here on how to deal with grief, no moralistic epiphanies or clever grandiose poetics. But it could, at the very least, help some of us better understand how grief functions in our own lives, how being reflexive about loss can help us accept that “We are all always so close to not existing at all” or offer insight into how we too can function when “someone’s there and then they’re not.” In the context of our own narcissistic pretenses and the technologies that mediate our interactions — our constructed identities, our social media performances, our avatars and their simulations — the act of being brutally honest, of being uncomfortably direct through the highly flawed, imperfect thing we call language becomes an act of boldness and, for me, a source of inspiration.
This is why I’m writing not as “Mr P” in this review, but as Marvin Lin: a longtime admirer of Phil’s music and a fellow caretaker, griever, and father, scared about the future but overwhelmed by feelings of openness and kinship. And it’s helping.