In a Room, Listening to Phil Elverum Sing About His Wife’s Death

In interviews, Elverum has mentioned feeling both unable to sing certain songs from his new album and fundamentally disconnected from everything he wrote before.

Photograph by Jacob McKinley

Last night, the musician Phil Elverum—who used to record and perform as
the Microphones but who, for almost fifteen years, has called himself Mount
Eerie—took to the stage at Chicago’s Thalia Hall, to open a short tour
in support of his heartbreaking new album, “A Crow Looked at Me.” The
album tells a story, one that almost everyone seated in the audience
already knew: in 2015, Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée, a prolific
visual artist and musician, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Four
months earlier, she’d given birth to a baby girl. Elverum wrote and
recorded the sonically spare album alone on a laptop in his dead wife’s
room, using her instruments; the songs are dazed dispatches filed from
deep within a surreal world of grief.

I can’t have been the only person who approached the concert with a mix
of anticipation and trepidation. I’m a longtime fan of Elverum, who has
always radiated an attractive sense of fundamental artistic
independence. As most all writing about him notes, he lives in
Anacortes, a small town north of Seattle, and for years has released his
music on a record label that he runs himself, following his personal
musical compass wherever it leads him—from lo-fi contemporary folk to
noise rock, electronica, and Norwegian doom metal. From my first listen,
I found “A Crow Looked at Me” brilliant and moving, likely Elverum’s
most fully realized project. But I listened to the album sparingly. The
lyrics, which feel more central to the enterprise than on previous
Elverum releases, combine emotional intimacy and tonal frankness to a
degree rarely heard in contemporary music. One sample, from the opening
track, “Real Death”:

Crusted with tears, catatonic and raw

I go downstairs and outside and you still get mail

A week after you died a package with your name on it came

And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret

And collapsed there on the front steps I wailed.

And another, from the second track, “Seaweed”:

Our daughter is one and a half

You have been dead eleven days

I got on the boat and came to the place

Where the three of us were going to build our house if you had lived

You died though, so I came here alone with our baby

And the dust of your bones.

This wasn’t music I wanted to listen to casually. I didn’t want to sing
along to it while I got dinner ready for my wife, or play it in the car
while we drove to the beach, or blast it through my headphones while I
sweated on the treadmill. Prior to last night, I had only ever listened
to “A Crow Looked at Me” while completely alone. The prospect of
watching Elverum perform it live to a room full of several hundred fans
made me uneasy, and not just because I’m not accustomed to contemplating
death in the company of strangers. There is a fine line—perhaps too
fine or jagged to ever locate with total certainty—between appreciating
an artist’s emotional bravery and rubbernecking at his pain. There was
something nauseating about the idea of a roomful of fans mentally mouthing
along with Elverum’s lyrics, each of us waiting for our own personal
favorite devastating line.

My wife and I arrived slightly late, which felt horrible, like arriving
late to a funeral. Elverum was already onstage, alone, wearing light
khakis and a sea-green T-shirt. I didn’t recognize the song he was
singing. It wasn’t from “A Crow Looked at Me,” or any other Mount Eerie
album. But it was clearly about Geneviève. (“The second dead body I ever
saw was you, Geneviève,” Elverum was singing as I took out my notebook
and pen.) The effect was jarring. I thought I’d come to the show knowing
exactly which details to expect of her life and death and Elverum’s
mourning. Now more details—more moments, more images, more grief—were
entering the frame. I wasn’t waiting for my favorite lines. I was really
listening. So was everyone else: the room was reverentially quiet, with
even gentle sneezes registering as apologetic violations of something
important in the air.

By the time Elverum had left the stage, he had played an equal number of
album and non-album songs, all about Geneviève. “A Crow Looked at Me”
opens with Elverum worrying that the immensity of death makes it a bad
subject for art, which can only ever fail to grasp it:

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

When real death enters the room

All poetry is dumb.

In the songs he added to the mix last night, Elverum expanded this line
of thinking to include the very concert that he was performing, worrying
out loud that, by trotting out his “grief songs” night after night, he
risks “calcifying” his raw sadness into something easily consumable, and
therefore dishonest. In one of the few laughter-provoking moments of the
evening, Elverum sang of the ambivalent pleasures of getting invited,
earlier in the year, to an outdoor music festival where he played his
new songs “to a bunch of young people on drugs” before partying into
the night with Skrillex and Father John Misty. The chorus wedded oddly
cheerful, sing-along-friendly chords with dark, blunt lyrics, cranking
up the tension between music as a vehicle for pleasure and music as a
container for crushing emotion:

People get cancer and die

People get hit by trucks and die

People get erased for no reason.

Perhaps even more than on “A Crow Looked at Me,” the lyrics were
reminiscent of the writings of Karl Ove Knausgaard: first-person,
digressive narratives that pinball between the quotidian and the cosmic.
I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all down. My journalistic
desire to record Elverum’s set on my phone for future analysis was
defeated by my human desire to live alongside the songs in the moment
that he’d created for me. (Only back at home, writing this piece, would I
realize that some—not all—of these new songs had already popped up on
YouTube, in crowd recordings from one-off performances.) I felt no
doubt, watching Elverum wrestle the contradictions of his present life
into song, that I was witnessing true live-wire artistry from an
American original, and, with my wife standing next to me, I felt
absurdly happy to be alive.

At the very end of the show, Elverum got his first and only heckler—a
man, on the very slight chance that you had any doubt. “Play your old
songs, man!” he bellowed. (Later, after the show, my kind and
fundamentally nonviolent wife would express her hope that someone find
this person and punch him in the face.) The audience froze for a moment,
waiting to see how Elverum, who had hardly spoken to the audience all
night, would respond. In interviews, he has mentioned that he feels both
unable to sing certain songs from the new album and fundamentally
disconnected from everything he wrote before.

“No,” he said, gentle but firm, looking in the heckler’s direction. “I’m
going to play a new song.” And then he did.