Murdoch Stephens saw Mount Eerie play in Krakow, visited Auschwitz, and wrote about how to listen to songs of unimaginable tragedy.
What are the limits of processing grief through a song? Love is easy. The performer is either in love or out of it, so, for most of us, there’s no problem with identifying with their lyrics. But what can we do with an artist who has experienced the deepest, and hardest to relate to, of personal despairs?
Effusive praise for the tender devastation of Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me from the New York Times and Pitchfork helped it reach well beyond the artist’s existing audience and become one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2017. But it’s hardly cause for celebration: the album is a diaristic revelation of the months of intense grief following the death of his wife Geneviève Castrée Elverum. Reviews of the live shows have remarked on the brutally direct delivery and the deep awkwardness of both the performer and the audience.
The New York Times writes: “So intense are these songs that it feels almost impolite to refer to them as art, which typically connotes an interest in aesthetics.” This analysis is not over-hyped. Crow makes Nick Drake’s Pink Moon seem jaunty, and shames Joy Division for daring to dress up one’s coldest mood with a rhythm section. The New Yorker reviewer wrote that he ashamedly turned up late and it was like being late for a funeral.
But if it is okay to use a song about the disintegration of a marriage to help us deal with a Tinder date gone wrong, is it also okay to use A Crow Looked at Me to help us express a sadness that is not as earth-shattering as Elverum’s? This question plagued me as I decided whether to go and watch a live performance of this album.
Mount Eerie, aka Phil Elverum, is set to play Auckland this week, but months ago, on holiday in Eastern Europe, I saw him play in Krakow, Poland. The seated theatre where he played was barely adorned. There were a mic stand and speakers, and a school bus-yellow guitar case. A child’s drawing, with the words ‘Mount Eerie’, lay on the floor where one might expect to encounter a set list. Above it all, the swirl of three blue lights gave the impression of looking up from beneath the water.
“Well I’m happy to be here,” Elverum offered by way of introduction, before correcting himself. “I am happy to be here, now I’m going to play these fucked up sad songs.”
Krakow, the closest city to Auschwitz, is a curious place for a performance fixated on death and the grief of survivors. Yes, it is a university city, and yes, he has played here before – but the symbolism of beginning the tour here is hard to ignore. Elverum might have been channelling the crow’s words from Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s ‘Song of the Crow I’: “I’ve come from very far away / To bring bad news.” Though this is the third mini-tour since he began playing these new songs at the start of the year, Elverum says performing remains an extraordinarily strange and uncomfortable exercise.
Levi, one of the most famous writers who had experienced the Nazi death camps, made sure not to leave works that might lend themselves to a fascination with the Nazis. As Toni Morrison writes of Levi, he “refuses to place cruel and witless slaughter on a pedestal of fascination or to locate within it any serious meaning.” Elverum’s opening song from both the album and the concert, ‘Real Death’, makes a similar refusal: death is dumb, as is poetry about death, so he refuses to search for meaning in it. And yet, like Levi, the thing – the realness of death – haunts, animates and even propels their work forward.
Traveling across Poland sometimes feels like passing over a giant Magna Doodle. Bordered by Germany and Russia, armies have routinely slid across its vastness, flattening the country, erasing almost all before them. A few, unstructured traces remain, like the broken and anonymous headstones crafted into a memorial in the new Jewish cemetery in Krakow. The Polish are not an innocent people in all this, of course. Their past and present includes collaboration, continuing anti-Semitism, and a stark monoculturalism most recently revealed by their refusal to accept any refugees during the recent crisis. Not to mention the recent massive march of nationalists and Nazis across Warsaw.
In this context, audiences for Mount Eerie and his songs of grief are faced with a similar question to those of Primo Levi and his stories of Auschwitz: if those wrought by the experience find it dumb and refuse to glorify it, how should we, the audience, react?
The first four tracks of the Krakow show were all from A Crow Looked At Me and were played as they appear on the album. Elverum’s eyes were closed for almost every lyric as if conjuring the cedar groves, foxgloves, and Canada geese of the Pacific Northwest, a place that suffuses the album. He opened them only with the lines describing the regrowth after a forest fire: “but slowly sovereignty reasserts itself”. These lines marked the first moment that he seemed unsure and perhaps questioning his own lyrics. Is the forest fire or the regrowth the real sovereign?
‘Crow’, ends the album, as Elverum moves his second person dedication to their daughter, “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you?/ Smoldering and fascist with no mother/ Are you dreaming about a crow?” The song also marked a turn in the performance, with Elverum announcing he was going to play new songs. ‘Crow Sequel’ returned to the final track from the previous album, imaging the content of the dream his daughter had while sleeping strapped to his back. It is in that alternate reality that Geneviève lives on.
There are still crows at Auschwitz. Apart from the tourist groups, kempt grass and a tractor in the distance, they’re the only living thing. I don’t know the life cycle of your average Polish crow, but they can’t be too many generations removed from those that watched Levi survive where so many others were murdered.
The crow and its close relation the raven are not new symbols in contemporary culture – they’ve long been used to express horror and grief. There’s the raven tapping through Edgar Allen Poe’s story named after the bird, the film series The Crow, and tracks like ‘Black Crow’ by Songs:Ohia and ‘The Black Crow King’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And how many hokey dramas have informed us that if you have a crowd of the birds, you’ll have a murder?
In addition to ‘Crow Sequel’, all the new songs closely followed the themes from A Crow Looked at Me. But where the tracks on A Crow Looked At Me were drawn from an unfiltered well of personal grief, these new tracks expanded on Elverum’s considerations of mortality, love and the awkward success of his previous album.
‘Earth’ was introduced with a straightforward admission that “everybody who used to know us seems concerned” about him. The concern is easy to understand – when someone sings so honestly about how lost they feel, how intensely they miss ‘their person’, and how little they understand about how they’ll continue to live, concerns should abound.
But what can the rest of us do with Elverum’s pain? He sings that death is dumb and he doesn’t want to learn anything from it. But, without seeking a lesson, there is something powerful in this work that insists on repeat listening, and leads to these perverse, sold out tours. What are listeners doing when they’re listening to these songs? We’re transposing our own grief onto Elverum’s. Some of this is grief connected to death, but some grief is of a broken heart and some of abandonment. Some is from those who never had the chance to have their heart broken.
The attraction of A Crow Looked At Me is that it allows us to experience a sublime articulation of grief. We might be embarrassed admitting we’re transposing our need for catharsis onto the lyrics of Elverum, but we shouldn’t be. The uninitiated or cynical might frown at the idea of touring these “fucked up sad songs” and shudder at the idea that people cherish Elverum’s music as a way to cope with their own heartbreaks or disappointment. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling a genuine sadness and care for him – so long as that connection doesn’t prevent us from also showing care for those close to us. And if it does? We all deal with intense sadness in different ways and in different time frames, and that often requires some distance from those people and places to which we were previously close.
Late in the set was a surprising move away from the singular tone of loss as Elverum joked about the absurdity of being flown to a festival in Phoenix to sing “these death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs, standing at the desk next to an idling bus with Skrillex inside.” Unlike all the songs on A Crow Looks At Me, that track, ‘Now Only’, has a chorus: “People get cancer and die, people get hit by buses and die.” The track also reveals that the success of Crow has left him feeling slightly disgusted: “You are gone and then your echo is gone and then the crying is gone. And what’s left but this merchandise? [long pause] This is what my life feels like now.”
Through no plan or intention, A Crow Looked At Me is an unrepeatable album: grief calcifies, photographs replace memories, day-to-day life with a young child must continue. The new tracks were of a different tenor – a chorus, a joke, slagging off a President – than those of Crow, giving hope that Elverum will find a way to live on.
There are very, very few songs about the Holocaust. Writing and museums have become the answer to that unanswerable death. Perhaps the remove of words gives the kind of distance needed to describe the indescribable. Reviews of A Crow Looked At Me often note the songs shouldn’t really be judged as songs – they’re diaristic, confessional lyrics that he performs through speaking. There is none of the wailing or wrought vocals that we might associate with music about death. The one moment of harsh feedback comes as a relief, the way a swig from a bottle of whiskey can help more for the intrusive taste than the alcohol it contains. Nor is there thundering guitar, nor the clash of cymbals or kick drum to evoke the power of the gods over mere mortals. No exaggeration or ornamentation is needed.
It’s a brave act to repeat the show, night after night. I hope Elverum will be okay by the time he makes it to Auckland. Maybe he senses some way through his grief through the familiarity of touring. Maybe it’s an escape. I don’t know. It might not be a gig to sing along to, and you might only get one nervous laugh, but there’s something profoundly sad as well as healing in Mount Eerie’s performance.
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