Before going to see Mount Eerie, the current name of the recording project of Phil Elverum, play songs from ‘A Crow Looked at Me’ live I would have recommended the album to almost anyone. I would have called it my ‘Album of the Year’ in that pandering way people do, trying to say that one album can possibly be the ‘best.’ After seeing these songs played live and watching the man who wrote them perform them I cannot say either of these things. In fact, I’m not sure if this is an album that is meant to be listened to.
The setting was, in a first for me, a church. I waited outside on the steps of St. John’s on Bethnal Green, alone, under a concrete crucifix. A church seemed like a strange place for a gig. Usually, it is a bar, a pub or somewhere else where there is usually live music and not congregations and knitted pew seats. In retrospect, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was a perfect place for this particular event, as I would hasten to call it a gig after experiencing it. Churches, and any place of worship, command respect, you can be an atheist or another religion, but a church has a deep and spiritual meaning to somebody. From the words in the songs played by Phil, I don’t think he is religious, but I think there was a spiritual significance to him playing in a church. Just not one I can put my finger on.
Waiting for the doors to open I was excited. As I have previously mentioned on this blog I found ‘A Crow Looked at Me’ to be an incredibly moving piece of work, and the thought of seeing these songs played live was something I was interested in seeing. As the doors opened and I shuffled through to the right of me was Elverum himself selling his merchandise and albums. Someone asks him if he wants a drink and he says he will have a red berry tea. I asked him if he had any copies of ‘The Glow pt.2’ but he didn’t so settle on a copy of ‘Mount Eerie.’ He didn’t have any change for my £20 so I told him not to worry.
I sit down in a church pew. There is a long wait as the rest of the crowd make their way in, buy their albums and, inexplicably given the venue and the tone of the evening, buy their beer and wine. The wait is almost an hour but eventually, the lights darken, and Phil walks directly down the aisle. He places down his tea, picks up his guitar and launches into ‘Real Death’ a song that starts with the line ‘Death is Real.’
It was only throughout this performance that I realised how real death could be, looking at the man who had written songs that had touched me so much struggle to make it through singing them. I realised that these songs aren’t meant for me, they are for Phil, they are for his own personal healing process. Any attempt I make at finding personal meaning in these songs is moot. This is a man mourning a loss that hopefully, I will never have to face. A man who is dealing with a reality he could never have seen coming. A man trying to make as much sense of a senseless world as he can.
The experience is mesmerising but not necessarily enjoyable. Watching Phil pour out his heart, sing with nothing but unrefined and pure emotion is possibly the most moving experience I have ever had. But it feels like I shouldn’t be there. Phil put it best as before he played his last song he thanked the audience for coming to ‘whatever this is’ and stated that he wouldn’t be playing these songs again as hopefully there would be a future with different, less heavy material coming from him.
The new material he did play seemed to be an extension, and in many ways, a reaction, to ‘A Crow Looked at Me’ new songs dealt with the continuation of his mourning of Genevieve, with a particularly haunting thematic verse about fragments of bone. What stuck with me the most, however, was the song about being flown to a desert festival to play these songs. It struck me the absurdity of what was happening, that this art that had touched people had taken on a life of its own. People enjoyed and respected the album and the songs but the whole scenario was strange. Part of me felt voyeuristic, that I was bathing in the misery of another human being for even listening to ‘A Crow Looked at Me.’ I felt awful for being there expecting Phil to sing these songs and for expecting some sort of feeling from another person’s grief. But it was an experience I will never forget and in some ways inspiring. It is inspirational that someone can carry on to any extent after the events that became Phil occurred. Fighting through songs so raw, emotional and autobiographical that it must be difficult reliving these memories on a stage with an audience looking at you.
As Phil played the last song he walked back down the aisle and sat at the merch booth. The lights went up and people started to leave. As I left I nudged him on the shoulder and thanked him. I’m not sure if this was appropriate or what I was meant to do but I felt the need to thank him for doing what he just did. For giving a room full of people what they had expected and thought they wanted, even though it was evidently difficult for him to do so. He thanked me back, I can speculate as to why, but for whatever reason he did, I don’t feel like he needed to.
‘A Crow Looked at Me’ will be put on the end of year lists. It will be ranked against other albums and placed accordingly because that is what the public wants and will expect. When I first listened to this album I gave it a rating in my head, but in all honesty, that rating is meaningless. Anything I could write about the album is meaningless. Watching Phil play, hearing these songs played live, it was apparent that the meaning this album has is Phil’s and Phil’s alone. His musings on life, finding meaning in life and such are interesting and insightful, but this album and these songs are meant for him. I hope that in the future Phil can come out with songs that he can play with more ease. I hope he has the future that he wants and deserves.