I never run out of things to hate about music journalism. Sometimes I wonder if the only acceptable form of an album review would just be an in-depth examination of the reviewers experience listening to the music. When you try to describe the music itself, don’t you always end up describing yourself, anyway? I’m not being abstract, I really believe that.
This belief started as a distaste for the practice of giving artworks numerical ratings, whether it be Ebert’s 4 stars or Pitchfork’s out-of-ten score. I know it’s supposed to provide a defensible point for the review, like a thesis, but to me the process seems to have very evil implications. It represents a systematic refusal by journalists to examine pieces of art on the terms of these artworks, and for no real reason except to make the reviews more easily skimmable, digestible and shareable. As a writer in the arts, I’m perpetually horrified by the ubiquity in my field of systems like this—how they lessen and dumb down the experience of art, and turn art criticism into an accumulation of bloodless clickbait.
Finally, my impression of the hype surrounding “A Crow Looked At Me,” the most recent album from the monumental indie musician Phil Elverum (as Mount Eerie), has been difficult to reconcile with my experience of the album itself. The album centers around the loss of Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, to pancreatic cancer last July. Geneviève was a fantastic artist in her own right, from her various musical projects and collaborations to her acclaimed career drawing comics, such as the Ignatz-nominated “Susceptible.”
“Consequence of Sound” has given “A Crow Looked At Me” a score, a respectable A-, which again seems intrinsically evil to me, although I’ll let you decide how you feel about that.
The lyrics on the album were compiled from scraps of poetry and various thoughts Elverum wrote down during and after Geneviève’s sickness. Many of the lines neither rhyme nor seem particularly structured. They spill over one another in continuous threads, ending eventually, often just before the final chord in the progression—tracks like “Toothbrush/Trash” and “Seaweed” are built like this, like rooms without doors.
Elverum continually returns to the idea of not learning anything or gaining anything artistically from Geneviève’s passing. I think listeners will probably wonder at some point why he made the album. I don’t think it’s a testament to their relationship, or anything like that. It seems more like the result of a process of coming to terms with death, and of understanding his altered role as a person, primarily his new role as a single father. In other words, I see the album as a necessary continuation of Elverum’s quest for meaning, which probably started long before he first began releasing music under the name “The Microphones.”
It’s a difficult album to listen to, obviously, even as individual songs. Hearing about Elverum’s plan to build a house for his family on an island near his hometown of Anacortes (a plan he still intends to go through with) isn’t fun. The music is really devastating. Although I don’t think this was Elverum’s intention, the album makes you think about losing people you care about and makes you inhabit his sorrow, or at least some distant and lesser sorrow.
The music is brutal and loose, if not quite formless; acoustic guitar rhythms crumpling into one another. It does what it’s meant to do, basically—complementing the bleakness and confusion of the lyrics without getting in the way.
On his Bandcamp, Elverum wrote:
“‘Death Is Real’ could be the name of this album. These cold mechanics of sickness and loss are real and inescapable, and can bring an alienating, detached sharpness.”
In the song “Emptiness pt. 2” he sings:
“There is nothing to learn/her absence is a scream.”
A Mount Eerie album could never be completely artless, but “A Crow Looked At Me” is maybe the closest thing I’ve heard to someone sitting down with you and saying whatever it is they feel. If the question of artlessness or the process of grieving interest you, give it a listen. The second single “Ravens” is a good place to start, and a good way to tell if you’ll actually want to listen to more.
If you’d like a better idea of how and why the album came about, I’d suggest Jayson Greene’s piece for Pitchfork.