Anacortes' low-key new album mourns the death of his wife

Phil Elverum sings about how life goes on, even when you want it to stall, in A Crow Looked At Me.
Phil Elverum sings about how life goes on, even when you want it to stall, in A Crow Looked At Me.PHOTO: P.W. ELVERUM & SUN

Listening to A Crow Looked At Me, the 13th studio album by Anacortes, Washington-based singer-songwriter Phil Elverum, one remembers a devastatingly banal line from French semiotician Roland Barthes' Mourning Diary: "No sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance."

That line pinpoints the unending process of inner turmoil which belies the face of sanity.

Whereas Barthes was struck by the death of his mother Henriette in 1977, Elverum, who performs as Mount Eerie, was grieving for his wife, illustrator and musician Genevieve Castree, who died in July last year of pancreatic cancer, only 11/2 years after giving birth to their daughter.

The emotions, however, are the same.

  • INDIE FOLK

  • A CROW LOOKED AT ME

    Mount Eerie

    P. W. Elverum & Sun

    4/5 stars

A Crow Looked At Me gets under the skin precisely by showing the minutiae of everyday life, or postlife, as is. The continuance of chores and the business of living goes on, even when the survivor wants life to stall.

The album was recorded at home in the room where she died, using mainly her instruments and with lyrics scribbled on her paper - perhaps an attempt to communicate with her, to stay close to her.

In Real Death, the first of 11 open letters addressed to his wife, he half-sings, half-speaks over strums of her own guitar: "Death is real/ Someone's there and then they're not/And it's not for singing about/It's not for making into art."

It is this knife's edge between life and art, between death and music, that gives the songs that quality of unease.

In fact, Elverum calls the album "barely music" - "it's just me speaking her name out loud, her memory" - sharing incidental details that punch you in the guts when you least expect it.

Whether receiving a package for a backpack she ordered for their child or pouring out her ashes in "a field of wild foxgloves", his choice of tone is low-key, almost whispered, never histrionics.

In Seaweed, you have to listen closely as he mumbles the final couplet: "But the truth is I don't think of that dust as you/You are the sunset", and then the song ends abruptly, unceremoniously.

The single Ravens rides over a dolorous riff, like a wave lapping at conscience, as a humdrum remembrance of seeing two black birds in the backyard suddenly opens a floodgate of memories.

"You were probably inside/You were probably aching, wanting not to die/your body transformed," he sings in an even tone, adding: "Now I can only see you on the fridge in lifeless pictures."

Time heals, time does not - that is the constant vacillation which inflicts Elverum's soul. In Forest Fire, he rebukes the talk that the summery heatwave is "a natural cleansing devastation". Throwing out her belongings, he asserts: "You do belong here. I reject nature. I disagree."

The declaration is a coping mechanism. In Emptiness Pt. 2, the realisation that "conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about back when I knew my way around these hospitals" hits home and nothing is the same again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Widowed songwriter's grieving gets under the skin'. Print Edition | Subscribe