by Conor Fynes
There’s always going to be a certain inherent artificiality in the way an artist’s emotions are expressed in music. Hell, that probably applies to every form of art out there, and it’s especially true if the art seeks to explore feelings at the more difficult end of the spectrum: grief, trauma, anger, depression… you get the idea.
How can you reflect your feelings in music? You can’t literally catch a feeling mid-air and package it for purchase, and even if you could, everyone feels things differently. Art’s only ever meant to stand as a representation of feeling, rather than the thing itself. Great art might succeed at opening up a depth of emotions in the beholder, but it’s beyond the scope of the artist at that point. A listener’s feelings are their own creation.
The artificiality is there because it needs to be in order to translate the emotion to a context the listener can understand. Poetry navigates feeling through metaphoric language, and music through technically abstract sound. Remove the artificial layer, and what are you left with? You could record yourself saying ‘I’m sad’ or something whilst in the authentic throes of despair, but then you’ve got the problem of people saying it’s not even art to begin with—this album’s particularly vocal critics can surely attest to this.
Making things trickier still, when someone’s actually knee-deep in the shit of their trauma or depression, it’s not exactly priority (or even possible) to commit yourself to writing melodies, harmonies, and inspired metaphors. The best music you’ve heard is usually coming from a very authentic reference point, but by the point the artist is able to get themselves together enough to manifest themselves in their work, they’ve at least given themselves the time to unpack and process the struggle. Artists tend to work with the memory of the feeling, a safe enough distance from the pain at least to be able to function creatively. Death is fucking real, man. You can’t expect yourself to focus on being productive when your world is toppling down around you. Even if you tried, it’s not like you would be able to detach yourself long enough to manifest some pleasant artifice your audience could relate to. By any conventional estimate, the result would be fatally distracted. Broken.
But that’s exactly what Phil Elverum set out to do here. A Crow Looked at Me has no pretenses of being necessarily anything to anyone other than himself and the process of coping after losing his wife to cancer in 2016. The only apparent intent behind the music might have laid in the creation process itself; this was no doubt the best way Elverum could make sense of the suffocating loss. I wouldn’t have been surprised if an album like this had even been left unreleased and unheard. There’s certainly no concession made for the listener, let alone the sake of ‘art’. A lot of it indeed sounds half-baked, released to public ears with so much obvious potential still left untapped or distracted. Honestly, the album sounds like the songs were all written out on a fucking napkin, then recorded later that day in a single take with little apparent planning for melody and vocal phrasing in advance of being there in that solitary moment.
A Crow Looked at Me is imperfect to the point of being broken.
And I still wept like a child listening to it.
I can speak without exaggeration when I say A Crow Looked at Me is the most authentic depiction of grief I have ever heard. The fact it can stir so many questions about the definition and function of art itself makes it stand out as something very, very special. Phil Elverum didn’t give himself time to process anything. The album is that process, which is why there’s so little in the way of decorative abstractions or artificiality. The lyrics are strikingly literal, and none of it has been clearly written to force certain pieces into place. The criticisms that have been lobbed at the album are almost all valid; so many things don’t add up by any formal rubric. Of course, any formal system is going to be informed by the standard artifice, safe creative distance, and audience concessions that we could take for granted everywhere else. None of those rules apply here.
We’re essentially left with gentle-strummed guitars and Elverum’s worn-out vocals, which seem to fall somewhere uncomfortably between following a melody and conversational speaking, as if he wasn’t sure which direction to take. A couple of the songs (‘Real Death’ and ‘Soria Moria” in particular) do manage to congeal into identifiable songs, but the whole songwriting process is bogged down by that overwhelmed distraction. There’s one respect where everything comes together though. Literal as they are, Elverum’s lyrics here are some of the most gut-wrenching and beautiful I think I have ever heard; their effect is only amplified by the unassuming nature of the music itself.
He tells the story of his wife and her gradual decline through a series of vignettes, often centering around the low-key quirks and everyday experience of a couple in love that often get taken for granted until it’s already too late. Much like an inspired documentary filmmaker, he knows how to bring out the otherworldly poetry of the real world. There’s a heart-stopping magic present in so many of these everyday moments—those sweet little perfections that are always hidden just beneath the surface. Maybe those moments are what we think of as happiness. In any case it’s seldom ever found except in hindsight. It would be optimistic to assume there’s any room for hope on this record, but there is a rare solace here found in the beauty of the mundane.
It would be difficult to defend A Crow Looked at Me if the lyrics hadn’t nailed it as well as they did. It’s the only aspect where the needed inspiration came tumbling forth in full. Each memory after painful memory does not seek to justify so much as it passively explains exactly why the album sounds as broken and worn as it does. Calling this ‘singer-songwriter’ or lo-fi folk doesn’t really fit it. A listener is best off approaching the album as an immersive exercise in grief and empathy, running parallel with the ambient simulation of dementia in recent albums from the Caretaker. The music is flawed by design. As far as it reflects experiencing the narrative, it is kind of perfect.
I said before that all of the criticisms are technically valid; many of them miss the point entirely though. I don’t know what I’d think of this if I was able to take it at its musical face value. It’s not about whether the album would work if it wasn’t based on real tragedy. This album could not exist otherwise. Trying to look at the music independently is like debating how well Saving Private Ryan would hold up if World War II never existed. Had he written something similar without going through any of this himself, it would sound entirely different and probably much more in keeping with the traditional catharsis these critics are looking for.
A Crow Looked at Me is what it is: a screenshot of a real time in a real man’s life where he was pushed to the outer limits of despair and somehow managed to anchor himself through personal creative expression. Even if this album had been limited to that audience of one, it would have still achieved the one thing it was really needed for.