The new Mount Eerie album, A Crow Looked at Me, begins with a perfect statement of the contradiction that comes up again and again through its devastated, devastating 42-minute length, less a motif than a Sphinx riddle: "Death is real," Phil Elverum sings, or half-sings, or manages to sing. "Someone's there and then they're not / And it's not for singing about / It's not for making into art."
The someone in this case is Geneviève Castrée Elverum, a beloved artist and musician who died of pancreatic cancer last July, leaving behind Elverum and their very young daughter. The art in this case is a collection of 11 songs written in the wake of her death. They aren't a tribute or a funeral oration. They aren't "about" her. They are sung to her, part incantation, part desperate effort to echolocate her suddenly missing physical presence, part bulwark against the tendency of everything to disappear.
For an album that begins with a refutation of art, A Crow Looked at Me is an astonishing artistic and human achievement. The phrase "death is real" recurs like a mantra, both centering and destabilizing Elverum's struggle to understand life in the absence of the woman he loved.
That struggle consists of moving through their house, caring for their daughter, caroming off of the mundane tasks of living while consumed by memories so recent and fresh that they barely seem like memories. He searches for meaning in rituals, like scattering her ashes on the island where they had planned to build a home together. "But the truth," he discovers bluntly, "is that that I don't think of that dust as you / You are the sunset."
You hear that line, or any of several dozen staggeringly frank and brutal details like it throughout the album, and you are destroyed. Then, just as suddenly, you realize that you will never be as destroyed as the man you hear on this recording. At least you hope not. No matter how sad you think you are (and you know you think you're pretty sad), you've never heard a more exquisite rendering of desolation than A Crow Looked at Me.
The plainspoken quality of Elverum's singing, songwriting, and playing—combined with what we know, or think we know, of the autobiography contained in the lyrics—has a way of making more conspicuously "sad" songs feel cheap, mawkish, unearned, even offensive by comparison. Including his own. On "Emptiness, Pt. 2" he sings "conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about before I knew my way around these hospitals."
Works of art suffused with bereavement constitute a long, celebrated tradition, from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, with stops along the way both sublime (Lou Reed's Magic and Loss) and less-so (Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven"). At the risk of putting too fine a point on anything, it's safe to say that A Crow Looked at Me makes beggars of them all in one very specific way: If all grief art is an effort to "make sense" of loss, and the best of it contains a resignation to the senselessness of it, Elverum's record is a present-tense document of the process of reconciling sense and senselessness. And failing to reconcile it, then trying again.
It isn't an abstraction or a re-creation. It doesn't aestheticize the experience of being overcome; it simply is overcome. There's no narrator, no metaphors, almost no figurative language at all. It's the most literal songwriting imaginable: direct address, from the singer to his departed love, who can never hear it, though the purity of its feeling leaves you with a powerful yearning to live in a cosmos in which she can. (It also makes you wonder, however selfishly, what it must be like to love, or to be loved, so singly and so powerfully.)
Even the rhymes that assure you this work has been crafted feel incidental. That literalism, perhaps ironically, invests Elverum's words with a character that can only be called poetry.
It's not for making into art. But art is unquestionably what it is. Bracing, shattering, vivid, living art that makes you roil with sympathy and empathy, holds you spellbound, makes you burst into tears, stops you crying with the blunt force of a single detail that makes your tears feel suddenly vulgar, offers no comfort, except maybe the very small, very cold one that we are united by aloneness.