Phil Elverum, the man behind Mount Eerie, had a banner 2017 for all the wrong reasons: After losing his wife Geneviève in 2016, he wrote an album about it in the room where she passed.
As he alludes to in our recent interview with him, A Crow Looked At Me, critically and commercially, did very well. It didn’t just tap into the human desire to make sense of mortality, it resonated sharply with those who have suffered similar loss. Crow is wrenching in its attention to mundanity, in its clear-eyed look at the wreckage a loved one’s passing leaves behind and the cruel banality of the life that follows. Geneviève had pancreatic cancer, and Crow is just as deft in its descriptions of deteriorating bodies and hospital interiors as it is the quiet roll of the calendar in the days that march behind it.
I was at his Noise Pop appearance at Swedish American Hall last night because, I mean…(gestures broadly at her body of work on this site since July 2014). In what’s probably a testament to the need for discussions of human grieving in song, Elverum played two shows last night — one at 6 and the other at 9. I took the early show, because I’ve apparently learned nothing from getting a rare glimpse at death and still like to spend my precious hours on this planet in bed by a reasonable hour. After a delicate, mood-setting opening from local Gray Tolhurst, applause rippled through the audience as Elverum strode from behind the merch table in the back, around the right side of the audience, and onto the stage.
Elverum began with an unfamiliar tune — I don’t remember it, to be honest, but I assume it was from his forthcoming Now Only — and then did a 180 into two devastating singles from Crow, “Real Death” and “Ravens.”
I gotta say, I felt a little betrayed. The first song, though unavoidably sad, lulled me into a false sense of security that hey, maybe tonight won’t trigger memories of antiseptic hospital smells and the hellish din of a nursing home your 60-year-old mother doesn’t deserve to be in, therapeutic as those vignettes are to visit sometimes. But he went there, and subsequently, the rest of us went to our respective theres alongside him. Throughout the set, tears were being softly, silently brushed from cheeks all around the auditorium.
There were a few moments of levity as the night wore on. The cuts he chose from Now Only were a little more jaunty in tone — the title track in particular has an uplifting, major-key chorus that starts, “People get cancer and die…” Now Only sounds like it might adhere to the musical tradition of aligning morose themes with upbeat music, but not in a way that plays it for novelty. They mostly dwelled on the absurdity of still being alive after someone else goes. How strange it is to buy groceries when your wife or sibling or son is just…not there, and won’t ever be there, ever again, all the way to infinity. It’s the kind of thing only someone who’s watched another person’s slow, helpless demise at the hands of an agonizing illness would know how to balance without being too glib, or going too hard on “the purpose of death is to appreciate life” themes. To paraphrase the end of “Real Death,” the last thing most grieving people wants to hear is that their loved one died to serve some larger cosmic purpose. Seriously. Don’t.
After the show ended, I stopped in the restroom. Women were emerging from stalls, clearly having just composed themselves. I wondered why we had all spent the evening trying so hard to conceal the fact that we were crying. Elverum has joined a pantheon of pop culture grief icons in the last few years; public figures like Sheryl Sandberg and Patton Oswalt have been open and honest about their own experiences with loss. I don’t know if Elverum showed up last night with the intention of creating a space for others to grieve — from what I can glean from interviews, he doesn’t seem to be positioning himself as some ambassador or arbiter of loss. But as his songs dropped near-nuclear truth bombs about death and cancer like “A week after you died a package with your name on it came / and inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret / and collapsed there on the front steps, I wailed,” it seemed a little ludicrous that we, myself included, still felt compelled to adhere to the tenets of Western decorum and do our sobbing in secret.
Once I finished up in the restroom, I joined the slow plod down the stairs to Market Street, were the next group of ticketholders was waiting for their chance to be intentionally made miserable. Then, three years and seven months after my mom died in a hospital gown, I went a few blocks up to a Castro Street cookie bakery that sells genitalia-shaped baked goods next to chocolate chip and snickerdoodle. Still being alive is so fucking weird.