A Crow Looked At Me
P.W. Elverum & Sun
I’m not even sure I am fully prepared to talk about this album, but this story is all I can think about lately. In the wake and waves of so much tragedy, horror, terrifying prospects that linger on the horizon it is Phil Elverum’s story of loss and the attempt to move on from that loss that hangs over my head. I seem too, unable to move forward, because here in an album, Elverum captures the exact fear of trying to use the tools we know best to cope and still finding it too difficult. A Crow Looked at Me asks that question, when the motions for getting through this life become so bare and honest, what else do we do to move fowrad?
Last year, master musician Nick Cave dropped Skeleton Tree which contained his misery and longing about loss and relationships not just in the wake of that loss but leading up to that loss. I remember walking under a bridge, graffiti covered and filled with the remnants of vagrancy – empty beer cans, needles, discarded clothes too worn away and dirty – where that album really hit me. I sought a place of solitude to deal with it. I returned to a similar space with A Crow Looked at Me, driving my car north towards Taos. Halfway between Espanola and my destination, I pulled to the side of the road. I placed the vehicle in park, rolled down the windows and sat in the rear, hatchback open. The sun was trying to warm the atmosphere. Looking at the waters of the Rio Grande and eating a lukewarm cup of soup I listened. But for the sound of a few cars passing and the waters flowing away from me, I was alone with Phil and his loss.
When musicians and artists tackle death they often try to make it more poetic and violent than it often is. But nothing in the lyrics of the songs contained within are anything less than stark, honest and straight forward. They are not formed to fit pretty melodies or personify some kind of meaning or mataphor. Instead they are the musings of a person left to live in the despair of losing what they loved. Here, Elvurum’s child seems to pull at his shirt tail, asking him questions, snapping him into a reality he’s so absorbed in that he’s lost. He remembers the birds, the birds all around him that speak to him as omens, as fortune tellers, as creatures that commune with the dead. Ravens and crows sit and watch him work, haunt his daughter’s dreams, show him of a future he will never have, remind him of his wife who is no longer there.
Elvurum takes us through his life, plain and simple. Every moment is a reminder of her, his wife, his lover, the mother of their new child. It’s hard to imagine that this album came with thought and purpose, because the actions and words are almost mundane and resigned. Rather, it feels like this just came to be, through the purpose of motion, the same inertia that propels his mourning life to go on.
I feel extremely guilty too. When art is this striking, it’s only natural to want to explore more work by the creator. But here, with this stark album about death, this absolute truth, what else could exist outside it? Elvurum has a long, well-regarded career and I am sure his music and poetry and art is stunning. But what could reach these levels, for this is a world he’s only lived once and will now live forever? This is not a starting point, at least not yet. What came before is absolute history. It is defined by an ending. Only what comes next seems relevant, but the possibility of what that could be is no more clear than the end of life that gave us such a beautiful coping mechanism.