What exactly does a devastation sound like? It can take on many forms: a quiet, bristling rejection of reality; a crushing, blistering blanket of rage; a total drainage of all feeling; a wash of hopelessness; an exodus of the self. There are plenty more dimensions to conquer in regards to what truly encapsulates the feelings and fallout of a devastating event, but right now there’s only one to focus on – the route that Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie) took after the passing of his wife to cancer in 2016. He released an album this year called A Crow Looked At Me, and it is one of the most clear-cut portraits of how one terrible, terrible event can shape everything around it. What I mean by that is Elverum struck right into the vein of his anguish and suffering; a deeply indulgent, personal, meandering type of suffering, and distilled it into this album for all to hear. This album then acts as a conduit for these emotions, letting listeners enter his home, sang about in stark details, and experience the trauma along with him. The record is a cloud – as beautiful as it is, it still casts a shadow over everything that it floats past, changing it for that bit of time. Taking everything into its world. Not every person listening has to deal with the consequences presented in the album for their entire lives, however, but in that 40-minute span it sure does feel like it lasts forever.
Now how do these wrenching songs translate in real time? Does the nature of recorded music, with its presence of a pause button, volume knobs, various other distractions and the option of isolation during consumption affect the delivery of the record to the senses? Is the performance also like a cloud, casting a quick shadow over the listener? After experiencing it, the live version of these songs actually more permeate like a mist and hangs heavy in the air.
Phil Elverum came to NYC to play two shows on separate days at an old theater in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I attended the first day – Monday, September 11th. I came with friends. The show was rather bare bones. It was Phil and a guitar up on stage and he played the songs off of his newest album. The songs, like mentioned before, enveloped the audience into the world he’s lived in for the past year. The fog of his past and his emotional burdens blanketed the room, dampening it with their sheer power. After those songs (with some excluded, because some “he just can’t do,” understandably so) there was a 30-minute intermission, which was then followed by a shorter set of brand new tunes that are just as striking as the ones on Crow.
The new songs focus on the same subject material, but they seemed to be a little bit more omnipresent in terms of songwriting. The songs on Crow are hyper-literal: they are literally about his journeys and thoughts and actions and emotions after his wife’s death. These are as well, but it seems like he’s asking more broad questions amongst his rambling narrative style, as well as bringing in some humor into the mix, believe it or not. There was one song where he talked about playing the Arcosanti festival in Arizona, singing something along the lines of “I don’t understand why some young people are asking me to come play my sad songs about death to kids on drugs in the middle of the desert.” In the same song Elverum brought up more jovial experiences as well, like “talking to Weyes Blood and Father John Misty outside of Skrillex’s tour bus” and “laughing til early in the morning in hotel rooms with people he had just met.” The weight of immense feeling is still there, but we’re seeing a new document of Elverum’s feelings as time goes by. He’s partly waning into a phase of acceptance on these songs, after stricken with grief, depression, anguish, the whole lot.
Don’t get the wrong impression, though. These new songs were still as brutal as the rest of them. The one time I shed tears during the show was during one of these newer songs. The lyrics took me by surprise and made me reflect upon my own life. The hyper-literal semantics of his song peeled away a bit, bringing in lyrics that most definitely apply to his situation, but also are pliable enough to bring around to the listener as well. Combined this to the fact that he’s still talking about this heartbreaking event and look here, you’ve got tears.
I’m interested to hear these new songs in the studio versions, if they ever get put out, since he was only performing with his voice and a guitar. On Crow there was some extra, sparse instrumentation that actually add a lot after seeing it stripped down live. Speaking of the live setting, he seemed to be uncomfortable to be up there singing his songs, but his will to stay and release them was stronger. After every song, he of did a kind of little bob – not quite a curtsy, but a polite indication that “yes, the song is over. You may clap now” since a few times after songs, the audience waited until the proper time to clap to give Elverum the proper amount of respect.
Many times clapping for his songs felt patronizing: “yes, yes my dear entertainer. Bring me these sad songs and relive your anguish.” That’s how I felt a lot of the time. At one point he said “thanks for subjecting yourself to this,” which got a laugh out of the crowd, along with many “we love you’s.” Another segment that tickled the audience was when Elverum had to restart a song since he botched the opening pitch so much. That reminded him of earlier in the day, when his daughter wanted to watch The Beach Boys on YouTube because currently that’s all she wants to do. In the first video he pulled up, from 1967 or so, The Beach Boys did more or less the same thing he just did, which was completely whiff on the correct pitch to start the song. He said that made him feel a little bit better about what he just did.
The crowd was so deeply invested in the show. Possibly the most polite and attentive crowd I’ve ever seen. I didn’t see a phone out in the entire seated audience, not one even taking pictures. No one spoke to one another during the sets. The only crowd noise I could hear throughout the entire show were from the photographers’ lenses as they crawled up and down the aisles. Even then people shot them dirty looks. Not even at orchestra concerts do photographers get stink eyed like that. In between sets I saw musicians like LVL UP and Jessy Lanza milling about, affirming my belief that Phil Elverum united us all under his powerful album.
As a whole, I cannot say I’ve been to a show like this one. It was pure, raw artistry displayed in full view. Purely just Phil Elverum telling his tales about death, soundtracked by a simple acoustic guitar, to a room full of young people who may or may not be on drugs on a Monday night in Park Slope. I’m very grateful for Phil to come out and sing these songs about death. It was intimate, it was beautiful, it was real and it was devastating.
Morale Check: Going into this show, I was pretty excited. Coming off of seeing one of the most exciting bands I’ve ever seen in Baroness did that to me. That, paired with the fact that I had had the chance to see Mount Eerie previously at Wesleyan University in 2014, but they never listed the venue on the show page, so by the time I had actually found it, the concert was already over and everyone was leaving with big smiles on their faces. Of course! After THIS show, I was floored. I had experienced a giant array of emotion in a short period of time. Joy that I finally got to see one of my favorite musicians live. Sadness from the obvious subject matter. Anxiousness on getting home in a timely manner (Park Slope is inconveniently far away from Bushwick). Awkwardness from when Phil pointed out my Weyes Blood shirt and said “I just sang a song with her in it” and I said “yeah I know, it was really good.” And then I bought a record and left. I’m very bad at talking normally to musicians. And people in general. Something I need to work on. A mix and mash of emotions. But the long journey home kind of wadded all of them up and stuffed them inside a duffel bag. The slow grind of getting home eroded my happiness and replaced it with lethargy. Did I really want to go through with the rest of this week? I had to. And I did. As always, thanks for reading.