Live Review: Mount Eerie

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.

Advertisements

A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie: Thoughts and Feelings

I have wanted to write about music for a while but I know literally nothing about music theory. It makes it quite difficult when writing, I can’t talk about the technicalities of music because to me music has always been about the effect it has upon me. To me the best albums and music have a profound effect on me that I can’t necessarily articulate. They make me feel emotions and take me to the place the artist was when writing them, and that is hard to put into words.

‘A Crow Looked at Me’ by Mount Eerie is a peculiar case. I cannot think of another album that has ever made me feel as strongly as this one has. I cannot relate to the death of a spouse; I have never been put into that horrific situation. For Phil Elverum his wife, Genevieve, died from cancer. This loss is the sole story of ‘A Crow Looked at Me’, a beautiful and haunting ode to love, and a diary of longing and loneliness.

I feel insensitive being able to relate to this album. I have never felt the extreme loss that Phil has, but I have lost. I have felt longing for something or someone that no longer exists. I have had to deal with, however on a much more insignificant scale, not being able to be with people I love. In many ways, this album being deeply personal makes it more relatable. I do not have the same stories Phil has, but I have stories of things that I miss. I can relate to him when he talks about thinking people want him to stop talking about Genevieve, as I can relate to my thoughts about people wishing I would shut up about the things and people I miss.

When looking at others thoughts on this album I have found many to say that it was an uncomfortable listen. I do not doubt this for one moment. It is certainly not an album that can be put on for background listening. It demands, and deserves, full unrivalled attention. There is not really any light that shines through this album, it is not hopeful, it is just a man trying to deal with something that fractured his world and outlook on life and nature. However, I have not found it, as some claim it to be, exploitive of Phil. There is a level of cathartic relief from sharing how you feel. I believe Phil wanted this out in the world. He wanted people to see the effect that this had on him. More than anything however I believe he wanted the world to know how much he loves Genevieve.

There is however, one solitary ray of light in this dark record and that is love. Although it is the tale of a relationship that perished too soon there is so much love and emotion devoted to Genevieve throughout the runtime of this record. The album, although about his struggle with loss, shows the absolute love and devotion that Phil had for Genevieve. One can only assume that the feeling was mutual. The love between them is what illuminates this record. It makes the loss so much more difficult to accept, but it is also what makes this album exist in the first place.

Ultimately ‘A Crow Looked at Me’ is probably not for everyone. As beautiful as it is it is very dark and is not an uplifting listen. It is also musically sparse, there is not much instrumentation on this and even then, it is used sparingly. However, as an experience, it is one that has had an impact since I first listened to it. It is one that in many ways confuses me. Part of me hopes I will never feel the strength of emotion that Phil describes throughout this album. The other part of me hopes that one day I can meet someone that I love as much as Phil loves Genevieve, that although it may hurt to lose them, that love having been worthwhile.