Photos by Julia Leiby
“Death is real; someone’s there and then they’re not.”
This is the grief-filled statement that begins Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me, and the words that singer-songwriter Phil Elverum recited at his performance last Friday at St. Stephen Church. Over the course of the evening, Elverum performed acoustic renditions of Crow songs, in addition to new, unreleased material, waxing unapologetically about his wife’s passing, raising his daughter alone, and the slight, somber details of life in the shadow of death. The performance, all beneath a sparse, dimly lit wooden crucifix, transcended the agnostic nature of the work’s original recording to become a deeply spiritual and challenging show, both in terms of thematic comprehension and emotional endurance for those who bore witness.
Local alt-R&B outfit Cigarette provided an atmospheric backdrop to mentally and aesthetically prepare the audience for the intense catharsis of Elverum’s oeuvre, playing songs from 2015’s Chapel Sounds (an appropriate fit for the venue), as well as their most recent Warm Shadows / Love’s Mirror. Cigarette’s music has a consistent dramatic tension. It’s built in part by shifting between maximalist soundscapes into downtempo grooves, equal parts shoegaze and ambient IDM. Its tension is heightened in a live environment by the group’s careful attention to restraining their physical movement while performing. Better yet, Cigarette’s melodic and carefully drawn out vox sounded beautiful echoing through St. Stephen’s vaulted ceilings, embedded with lush textures that was at times overwhelming (in a good way).
In between sets and after a round of receptive applause, it was interesting to see such a tenuous crowd reaction for those gathered on a Friday evening for a live show. For those present before Mount Eerie’s performance, there seemed to be an incredible amount of self-awareness within the crowd, an ever-present hush of self-reflection accompanying those who chose to see Elverum’s music performed in a live setting. To those I spoke to at the venue, it seemed a poor choice in terms of one’s own emotional well-being to actively subject oneself to Elverum’s music, knowing full well the emotional labor involved in partaking. However, there we were anyway, hushed within a church, heads bowed, as ready as we would ever be.
Elverum took the stage, engaging in some polite conversation with the audience, thanking everyone for coming before quickly segueing into “Real Death.” While Crow is lauded for its intimacy and sparse instrumentation as a musical release, the ability to consume it individually and on one’s own terms enables a certain distance between the artist and the listener, a distance that lets its subject matter become desensitized and accessible. In a live setting, I witnessed Mount Eerie in its truest and most raw form as a musical project: a man, a guitar, and a story to tell. Any ability to isolate myself from Elverum’s experience was rendered null; you feel, as close as you possibly can, to his trauma and pain. It is this unforgiving experience that made Mount Eerie’s performance the unforgettable and powerful art it is meant to be.
The recent memory of Geneviève Castrée Elverum, the one year anniversary of her passing, the incredible realness of the man performing before me who raised the daughter they bore together, all comprised something visceral and genuine that few performers can begin to approach. The format of Elverum’s storytelling, a rambling, arhythmic soliloquy, peppered within important dates and locations to the story of his marriage, lends itself beautifully to this experience in the sense that his music is a powerful narrative first and foremost, and that the medium of music is secondary.
Elverum found time in the second half of his set to transition to more lighthearted, occasionally humorous subject matter–one song in particular describes a conversation he had with Father John Misty at a music festival as he was “singing songs about death to kids on drugs.” It is hard to say, between Elverum and the audience, who was better served by the relief of laughter after macabre. At its core, the transition served as a reminder to the duality of death, of grief and acceptance.
Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me often returns to the motif of Geneviève’s ashes, and Elverum’s statement that he “doesn’t think of [her] as that.” Elverum, in a wider sense, also laments that, “the people who knew me will also die.” The entire release returns to the thesis of human existence as the collection of memories. In line with this thought process, Elverum’s ability to return to the trauma and pain of his wife’s passing, to preserve her memory through the pain in the form of performance, is the best testament he can make not only to how she is remembered, but also to her continued metaphysical existence. Death is real, but it is not the end. Last Friday’s performance reminded us of that.