A Crow Looked At Me

Every once in a while a music album comes along that just consumes me for a little while. I want to read everything anyone’s written about it to find out if it affected other people in the same way it did me and mine for insights and ways to put words to how it made me feel what I did. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is the latest such album. It’s about the recent death of Phil Elverum’s wife from pancreatic cancer, and it’s not hard to figure out, in broad strokes, why it affected me so powerfully after only a couple listens. (It’s because it’s crushingly sad.)

It’s All Right There In Front Of You

I’m interested in trying to pick apart how this album is so effective, because it seems un-pick-apartable. You go to the album’s Genius pageBecause even though Genius serves up two and a half megs of Javascript to show you nine hundred bytes of text, it’s still the best place to find up-to-date lyrics, alas.

and look at the lyrics for the first song, “Real Death,” and tell me if you felt the need to click on any of those lyrics to have user annotations explain what they mean. The lines that hit the hardest, like “Real Death” and the first verse of “Swims”, don’t need any, like, exegesis. It’s all right there in front of you.

But I don’t think it’s as simple as saying A Crow Looked at Me derives its power from being plainspoken about emotional devastation. Another album from a couple years ago, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, took a similar tack, and I hated it. It struck me as ham-handed, an unsubtle attempt to manipulate the listener’s emotions and not worth listening to more than once. Why bother? There’s nothing more to get out of the lyrics. It’s all right there in front of you.

A Pine Cone, Your Squeaking Chair

In case my own obvious ham-handedness in the last two paragraphs didn’t make it clear, my opposite stances on A Crow Looked at Me and Benji are untenable in light of my (remarkably similar) attempts to justify them. So why does A Crow Looked at Me work so much better? Let me excerpt a couple lyrics that highlight the difference between the approaches taken in these two superficially similar albums.

From Benji’s “Pray for Newtown”:

So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around
Take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown
They went so young, who gave their lives
To make us stop and think and try to get it right
They went so young, a cloud so dark over them hung
And they left home, gave their mom and dad a kiss and a hug

From A Crow Looked at Me’s “Toothbrush/Trash”:

Today I just felt it for the first time
Three months and one day after you died
I realized that these photographs we have of you
Are slowly replacing the subtle familiar
Memory of what it’s like to know you’re in the other room
To hear you singing on the stairs
A movement, a pine cone, your squeaking chair
The quiet untreasured
In between times
The actual experience of you here
I can feel these memories escaping
Colonized by photos narrowed down and told my mind erasing
The echo of you in the house dies down

Looking at the difference between these two excerpts, I actually hate Benji a lot more than I did even the first time I listened to it. “Pray for Newtown” traffics in generalities and platitudes: “so young” not once but twice in one stanza, “gave their lives,” “a cloud so dark.” It reaches for some kind of moral lesson — “make us stop and think and try to get it right” — but again it’s so general as to be meaningless. And when it does deign to offer a concrete look at what it purports to portray, it feels like naked emotional manipulation (or just an attempt to make the lyrics scan) rather than an honest decision that those details improve the storytelling. Of course the kids gave their mom and dad a kiss and a hug before they left for school. This means nothing. It’s just clumsily pawing at my heartstrings. As my partner aptly put it when I was trying to talk through this post with her, it’s like Mark Kozelek read the Wikipedia entry on the Newtown shooting and used the information therein to write a song.I’m sorry if you listened to Benji and loved it. I didn’t start this post intending to bag on it so hard, and I know a lot of people thought it was great. But to me it just seems like dime-store pathos compared to the realness of the death in A Crow Looked at Me. And I should be up front about one other factor: from what I’ve read, Mark Kozelek seems like he personally is often a real asshole, where Phil Elverum seems like just the nicest and most gentle guy you can imagine. I’m sure this skews my opinion of their artistic output as well, so feel free to take it with as many grains of salt as you deem necessary.

Contrast “Toothbrush/Trash,” of whose lyrics my excerpt comprises about half. (The stanza I quoted from “Pray for Newtown” is one of nine.) It’s spare, economical with words but generous with details about the quiet hell Phil Elverum is living. “Three months and one day after you died.” “You singing on the stairs, a movement, a pinecone, a squeaking chair.” It’s every bit as plainspoken as anything on Benji, resorting only to the occasional figure of speech like “colonized by photos” and “the echo of you in the house.” But Phil Elverum ends lines with words that rhyme only when he can do so without compromising that straightforwardness, unlike “Pray for Newtown”’s clumsy “a cloud so dark over them hung.” Elverum has said that an alternate title for A Crow Looked at Me could be “Death is Real.” It’s a phrase that opens the album, and one he repeats throughout it as the reality of the death in his life intrudes on him again and again, making him intolerable to share a grocery aisle with, crushing him under its weight when he lets his guard down and dares to imagine a future conversation he might have with his wife.

A Crow Looked at Me does a lot with very little. On first listen, it might seem like it’s stream-of-consciousness, like each song was recorded straight through, one take, no lyrics written down. But I can’t believe that’s the case at all. The ache I feel listening to this album is too much for these anecdotes not to have been selected and tweaked for maximum effect, rather than just plucked haphazardly out of a constant stream of such moments in Phil Elverum’s life and dropped onto an album with no artifice whatsoever.

Please. Please. Someday this or something like it will happen to me. I have to believe it’s not always this bad.