Most of the audience members seated in the Ukrainian Federation on Sept. 17 were well aware that the upcoming performance would mark an important tour date for Phil Elverum. The musician, who records under the moniker Mount Eerie, would have arrived at the venue with ambivalent anticipation. On July 9 2016, Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée, a cartoonist and musician from Montreal, died from a sudden onset of pancreatic cancer. In the following days, Elverum recorded an immensely powerful album in his dead wife’s room using her instruments. A Crow Looked At Me, released this past March, is less of a poetically packaged expression of grief and death, than it is an uber-personal and raw depiction of the pain and anguish experienced by Elverum following the death of his wife.
The skeletal instrumentation running throughout the album provides an unrestricted setting for Elverum’s deeply confessional crooning. To some, it might not even sound like music, but it’s not trying to. There are no catchy melodies, no folksy guitar riffs, and very few actual choruses. This simplicity is where the album gains its exceptional sense of urgency and raw emotional fervor.
From the moment Elverum took the stage, the room seemed to get smaller and more intimate with each song. The performance was unrelenting in its emotional punches—with every little detail of Castrée's death and Elverum’s grief, the punches hit harder. Elverum began with “Distortion,” a non-album song that he had performed at earlier concerts, followed by the album opener, “Real Death.”
“Death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not.”
From the very first words of the song, the harsh reality of Elverum’s experience transcended the stage and washed over the audience. This was followed up by “Seaweed,” a song that served to remind the audience how close to his wife’s death Elverum actually started recording. The last few songs he performed were all new songs, not part of the album. One that stood out was about the absurdity of being alive after experiencing the death of a loved one. This one felt different from the beginning; the guitar entered with toe-tapping chords and an oddly cheerful timbre. Elverum recalls a specific experience shortly after, when he was invited to play at an outdoor festival for a “bunch of young people on drugs,” with Skrillex heard blasting at the other side of the festival, and where he shared his experiences in song writing with Father John Misty while munching on baskets of fruit. This whole verse elicited chuckles from the audience, providing a much needed respite from the mournful nature of the rest of the performance. More than anything, this particular track felt like an artist wrestling with the sheer absurdity of their own existence and a very matter-of-fact interpretation of the world around him—void of any poetic internalization for the sake of song.
Before ending the night with a final non-album track, “Tintin in Tibet,” in which Elverum recalls memories of reading Tintin comics aloud in Haida Gwaii with his late wife—he thanked the audience for coming and stated that this would probably be the last time he would perform these set of songs in Montreal.
“I sing to you, Geneviève / I sing to you / You don’t exist / I sing to you, though.”
These words, perhaps, were a fitting conclusion and assessment of what the album’s core message is. As Elverum leaves the stage to a standing ovation, an aura of release looms over the auditorium; if grief truly is love’s unwillingness to let go, then A Crow Looked At Me exhibits the remorseless tenacity through which it acts.