Reading Phil Elverum’s Pitchfork interview in 2017 was vexing.
The interview was in support of his latest Mount Eerie album, A Crow Looked At Me, which – for those aware of the situation – was based on the death of Elverum’s wife and artist, Geneviève Castree.
I don’t need to elaborate on the interview. The linear notes within album sleeve re-tread over a lot of the ground covered during the interview which is understandable. There’s only so many ways you can dress up such a horrible set of circumstances.
Spending some time with A Crow Looked At Me shortly after its release and the conclusion was that it was simply unlistenable. Not because of the spoken word nature of it.
After all, this wasn’t Mark Kozelek putting his listeners on trial (yet again). While the weight was evident and for some too much to bear, the problem was the lack of direct empathy many listeners could offer to such a subject.
Quite simply, you cannot fully understand this album if you haven’t suffered a trauma of the same nature. And from there, A Crow Looked At Me was shelved indefinitely. Probably forever. Naturally, I moved onto something else.
Fast forward nine months and suffice to say, A Crow Looked At Me continued to go untouched.
Then life happened. Friday March 2, 2018. The day I kissed my wife, told her I loved her and went to work as normal. Little did I know that it would be the final moment we would exchange in this life. That afternoon my wife passed away suddenly. The day when you think you have it all and within seconds it’s gone. Forever.
After the torrents of various emotions swirled around my head, a couple of months passed and one afternoon it dawned on me that I had suddenly found myself in this wretched exclusive guild with Phil Elverum. A certain ring of hell designed for select individuals.
Elverum’s companion piece to A Crow Looked At Me, Now Only, followed on March 16 2018 – fourteen days after my wife’s death. I’m not completely certain, but it feels as if I listened to this album before its release. While my wife was still here.
I’m not sure why, though, given my feelings towards A Crow Looked At Me. It just feels like it was with me before this incessant darkness overshadowed everything. In any case, as heart-breaking as it is to say, I now understand these two albums all too well.
It feels wrong writing this and took many months and a lot of inner persuasion to finally decide on sharing these circumstances so openly. The biggest thing – as a very private person – you find yourself telling strangers of this loss that you would otherwise never dream of mentioning.
Your defences are so shot to pieces that any previous walls or security mechanisms you employed no longer exist. Maybe it’s because you need to treat everyone as a friend? Who knows.
For a very long time the only person I could directly connect with was Phil Elverum. The only person who could truly empathise with this situation.
A stranger, pouring out his heart in sheer anguish, as drones sadly oozed from the speakers in a home enveloped in misery. Was it a connection, though? It wasn’t like talking to your friend or your psychologist. It was merely a one-way street and, with hindsight, both A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only were more like a crutch than a connection.
A Crow Looked At Me flays the skin from your bones. Music always has the ability to form new meanings throughout various junctures of one’s life, but here there’s no reimagining or shape-shifting. While tracks such as Ravens, Toothbrush/Trash and Crow hit home the most, it’s the album’s artwork that is the most emotive piece. A poem, written by Joanne Kyger, entitled Night Palace:
The best things about the past
is that it’s over
You wake up
from the dream
that’s your life
Then you grow up
and get to be post-human
in a past that keeps happening
ahead of you
Now Only hit even deeper, tearing through muscle and boring through bone. There were many times that a three-day old meal and Now Only provided a limp form of vitality. Every night. For three or four weeks. It may have been longer – I really can’t remember.
At the time, even though it was the height of summer, going out wasn’t an option. It was just Phil Elverum‘s voice with tracks such as Earth and Two Paintings By Nikolai Astrup occupying the confines of my flat.
Listening to every lyric he parted with, as tears formed then flooded with ease. Whatever was left of the soul barely alive. I’d tell my friends sometimes. They’d just shake their heads and part with a ‘fuckin’ hell, mate – don’t put yourself through it’.
An inner sanctum of family, friends and professional assistance helped, but it’s your work colleagues that spend the most time with you who provided the most solace. Even then, as the time ticked towards five o’clock you could see the looks in their eyes. They knew they were going home to their families, whether it be loved ones, kids, or both.
Aspects of life that most of us take for granted majority of the time. I was going home to nothing. To a place so quiet you could almost hear the blood running through your veins. To sink in despair with these two albums.
There was no umbrage or jealously – that’s just how it was and they knew that and equally realised they could do nothing about it. Something of an unspoken truth.
During these moments, general awareness recedes and you become fatalistic with even the smallest things.
For example, you forget to look both ways before crossing the road. With the darkest moments even suicide slowly becomes more than just a fleeting thought to the point where waiting for the kettle to boil, you find yourself looking far too intensely at the knives which occupy the kitchen bench-top.
Sitting at home, staring at the same walls are the seeds for depression. It’s a lose-lose. Your energy is non-existent, but you need to get out of these surroundings. Things like getting out of bed are the biggest task of the day.
I’m ashamed to say it now, but for a number of days I’d even go to work without having a wash. It was simply too much effort. There was an elusiveness of genuine human connection, whereby you essentially present as someone dead behind the eyes. With hindsight, I guess you could call it a full blown existential crisis.
So, the ‘fuckin’ hell, mate – don’t put yourself through it’. Maybe my friends were right. Or maybe you need to hit rock bottom to revel in the true essence of bereavement and its dark vortex. The dark vortex where substance abuse does its best to reign you into its clutches.
Looking back at that period, Now Only probably saved me from succumbing to these potential vices. It’s the only thing I can think of that made me not completely get consumed by the maelstrom of substance abuse. Whether that makes sense, who knows, there’s no logic to this life.
That’s why being around the right people and seeking the right professional help is so vital and – with the benefit of hindsight – it’s been a blessing in disguise.
As someone who had only moved to Liverpool less than twelve months before my wife’s passing, I’m not so sure I’d be here authoring this had it not been for the people of this incredible city, including my colleagues at Getintothis during this time.
Elverum was so fearless to write these two albums that – as a listener – I felt compelled to at least provide something. Whether it was to merely help others who have experienced something similar or whether it’s a further demonstration to raise awareness for mental health, there was a compelling feeling to do something.
Now Only, I think, is the better album. It didn’t receive as much attention as its predecessor and the reasoning may be because people were too emotionally exhausted to give it the same time or, as raised in the points above, people couldn’t truly connect with it, which is totally understandable.
With Now Only you can feel Elverum has a better understanding of bereavement. Confident would be the wrong word to use in this context, but his pain cuts through more here, which may present as him reaching rock-bottom of that familiar whirlpool; from there, the proverbial fog can perhaps begin to part and, for Elverum, part it did.
His well-documented marriage to Michelle Williams being a sharp talking point last year (unfortunately they have since divorced). I say sharp because the ills of Twitter and its many street-urchins were quick to question Elverum with the ‘it’s too soon’ or ‘this doesn’t feel right’ glib platitudes that define the Broad church of social media. Yet another trial by media.
While these people tend to portray their emotions in the public arena before thinking and presenting a measured argument, I will say that my first instance wasn’t far removed from their collective thought. Thankfully, “taking to social media” isn’t a place where I choose to project my views. I’ll openly admit now, though, I was shocked.
At the time I had friends staying over and, coincidently, we were discussing Elverum the night before the news of his marriage to Williams had been reported. Whilst I was shocked, my friend shook his head.
“It’s fucking great!” he said.
My head was twisted for the next week or so. It was almost like we’d been through this journey together and he’d moved on and found happiness. How could he even contemplate that?
Looking back at it, I wasn’t at that point where you could contemplate such a thing. Elverum had eighteen months on me at that stage, and as each day passes, things do become a little easier. What were once defined as great days are scaled down and defined as good. Your bad days equate to being dreadful and they have the ability to creep up from out of nowhere. They still do, but not as often. Whether you can break through the ceiling where those great days are indeed great? Well, only time will tell.
As always, Tom Waits puts it best:
“Don’t plant your bad days. They grow into weeks. The weeks grow into months. Before you know it, you got yourself a bad year. Take it from me – choke those little bad days. Choke ’em down to nothing.”
While circumstances may have given divine sanction for nihilism and bitterness, life’s too short. You have to try and move forward the best you can.
At the end of the day, if you surround yourself with good people, make those relationships count more than you ever have before. Every time you see your family and/or friends, you bring your A-game or at least do your very best to. There are certain depths of loneliness that can’t be cured by company, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try and narrow the gap.
By being around the people you choose to be around is the most important thing and can only result in a positive outcome and, in my opinion, totally outweighs any political notion of entrusting certain leaders to make this world a better place. If we treat those who we choose to be around with happiness and love, then surely that supersedes any political notion for progression? We have to start somewhere and this seems like the best place.
On that note, don’t associate with people you feel forced to be around. Life’s too short for that. Preserve the relationships you have and even form new ones. The latter is a tough road to negotiate.
When attempting to form a new relationship you ease the guilt of that transiently good feeling by gravitating towards the familiar sinking one. It’s a nagging emotion that’s hard to shake but like those aforementioned bad days, it seems to recede with time.
Haruki Murakami makes a salient point in his short story from the eponymous collection, entitled Men Without Women. And before you ask the question – no, reading this wasn’t a journey through the realms of self-help or the like. In one of the many sequences of dark irony, this was a book my wife had bought for me four weeks before she passed away.
“Sounds are different in that world. So is the way you experience thirst. And the way your beard grows. And the way baristas at Starbucks treat you. Clifford Brown’s solos sound different, too. You might meet a new woman, but no matter how wonderful she may be (actually, the more wonderful she is, the more this holds true), from the instant you meet, you start thinking about losing her.”
It’s not the only passage in Murakami‘s fantastic short story which cuts through emphatically:
“Once you’ve become Men Without Women, loneliness seeps deep down inside your body, like a red-wine stain on a pastel carpet. No matter how many home ec [sic] books you study, getting rid of that stain isn’t easy. The stain might fade a bit over time, but it will still remain, as a stain, until the day you draw your final breath. It has the right to be a stain, the right to make the occasional, public, stain-like pronouncement. And you are left to live the rest of your life with the gradual spread of that colour, with that ambiguous outline.”
Here through the written word, Murakami espouses some of the most jarring passages that have met the eye.
The aspect which amplifies from this experience is that life’s too short to sit and stagnate in the past. Even if that past scars you for life, you have to preserve what you’ve got and at least try and move forward.
There are always setbacks and the earliest ones exacerbate to the point where they take you back to the darkest corners once inhabited. It’s an awful feeling and, initially, they feel ten times worse than any moment you’ve lived. That’s life. This life.
As hard as it was to sit and endure the unbridled torment of Crow Looked At Me and Now Only, things may have been different if I hadn’t. So with that let me say thank you, Mount Eerie. Thank you, Phil Elverum. Thank you.
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