Countless records have been written about death, about specific deaths. But none of them really get to your bone marrow quite like A Crow Looked At Me. Usually, there is some comfort, there is hope, some meaning to the devastation. This time, there's nothing.
Opening with ”Death is real / Someone's there and then they're not / it's not for singing about / it's not for making into art / when real death enters the house / all poetry is dumb”, the album develops into a journal-like biography that is painfully literal and detailed. The record is essentially a close-up of the profound devastation that is the aftermath of the death of Geneviève Castrée Elverum, a visual artist and musician, Phil Elverum's wife and the mother of their young child. It's difficult to find the words to talk about an album like this, something that is so explicitly just an expression of grief, rather than an artistic venture. Forcing you to see death for what it really is, the shock of this hopelessness continues throughout the album and it is impossible to not feel overwhelmed when witnessing this as a listener. Indeed, already the first song, 'Real Death', is bound to reduce you to a mess, recounting a story of how Elverum received a package out of the blue shortly after his wife had died, containing a gift for their daughter: ”A backpack for when she goes to school a couple of years from now / you were thinking ahead to a future you must have known / deep down would not include you. - - It's dumb / And I don't want to learn anything from this / I love you.”.
Throughout the record, there are attempts to grasp onto something, to find symbolism and meaning in tragedy. Elverum looks for a sign in the hundreds of Canada geese gathered on a beach, in the fly in their bathroom, in the ashes left of her body, but concludes: ”What could anything mean / in this crushing absurdity?” It's hard to listen to, made harder by knowing Elverum's previous work. Referencing 'The Moon' and his 2003 album The Glow, Pt. 2, released under the name The Microphones, that revolves around depression, suicidal ideation and loneliness, in 'Soria Moria' Elverum talks about meeting his wife for the first time. He seems to suggest that meeting Geneviève helped him to leave behind the longing and sadness he had felt before and had described on The Glow, Pt.2. And now, after living happily with her for 13 years, he's again faced with the solitude of his early 20s, only this time it is not satisfying or helpful, but forced and devastating. It is exactly this intimacy of Elverum's storytelling and music that makes his loss even more palpable to the listener. Crow is disturbing and it's violent; every line feels like a punch, and afterwards, you're nothing but bruises.
'Forest Fire' is easily one of the most poetic, loving and crushing recounts of death in music, with Elverum describing an actual forest fire from the summer that Geneviève passed away, before turning the fire into a metaphor: ”They say a natural, cleansing devastation burning the understory, erasing trails / There is no end / But when I'm kneeling in the heat / throwing out your underwear / the devastation is not natural or good / you do belong here / I reject nature, I disagree.”
I could say that the album doesn't stand out, musically, from some of Elverum's previous work, or that it's not diverse in its soundworld. But none of that has anything to do with the actual experience of listening to A Crow Looked At Me and its emotional impact. It's almost certainly the saddest, most haunting album I have ever heard; the direct honesty of this devastation is something so rare, even in music, that upon the first listen, I was shocked, scared of every line that would come next. And every time, they were even more heart-breaking than anything I could have expected. It's a record I can't call genius, that I can't call a masterpiece. Nothing on this album is intended as clever or new or even as art. It's just heartbreaking, suffocating, numbing and violent. An album that is most beautifully written, impactful and impressive, but one that you just wish had never had to exist.