Records: A Crow Looked at Me (2017), Now Only (2017-18), (After) (2018), Lost Wisdom pt. 2 (2019)
A white rose fell out of my lapelThe poem, “In Plain View,” from What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (Copper Canyon Press/Third Man Books, 2015)
outside the churchhhouse
like a hand with too much sun
A horse trampled it
The barefoot rider who was
just passing through
leaned over backwards
and picked it up with his toes
He said Sorry
and I said Much obliged
And I took it from his dark foot
and gave it to his fine horse
Phil Elverum’s tetralogy of four startlingly original LPs over the span of almost four years (2016/17-2019), chronicling a terrible exigency, is a monument as physically real as a gravestone, yet mutable. Taken together, these records attempt to chronicle the profound life-altering reach of grief, its shadows and impacts, and perhaps, most difficult of all to accept, the dark truth that mourning alters everyone forever, at a cellular level. And, mourning never ends. Why should it? Like a fault line after an earthquake, it’s a scar on our life-landscape. Everything changes: privacy, perception, identity, direction, and vocabulary. Like cancer, the dark force that helped to write these songs, it divides a life into two distinct permanent halves: before cancer and after cancer. Everything becomes unbearably real. Gone is the ability to background even the little things. There are no more little things.
Of course, these four LPs represent much more than one single narrative or determinate, not the least being that there’s no way back to before, from after. I was in The Business talking to Nick Rennis (co-owner of the record shop and distro hub, along with Evie Opp), when I learned that Phil was planning to release a new record about the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée/Elverum (1981-2016). The project didn’t have an official name at the point. I remember thinking it would be an impossible task for an artist to do, even an artist like Phil, exploring in song cycles something so personal in such a public way. The idea was both brutal and ultimately unattainable, I thought. I was wrong. Phil Elverum’s skills are every bit the equal to a writer such as Karl Ove Knausgård. (It’s helpful to keep literary forerunners in mind with this tetralogy, useful for navigation.) It’s doable for artists of this stature, but there’s a price for them.
Elverum began writing “A Crow Looked at Me” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2016-17), not long after the untimely and sudden death of his wife. Months after the birth of the couple’s only child in 2015, Geneviève was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. Castrée/Elverum, a multitalented visual and recording artist who recorded and toured as Ô PAON, was gone at 35. Her death set in motion the creation of these four unique records, an autobiographical portrait of the experience of two artist’s pain and separation. It ripped the roof off a closely-guarded privacy. Now, with a few year’s distance, long after the press has moved on in its writing about Mount Eerie, I wanted to test an experience: what would it feel like to play these four records again, in 2021, in sequence, as they were created?
Irrevocably, with the death of Geneviève, something quietly broke in Anacortes. A compass needle froze — the punk center of our town stalled. It feels today as if a major authority of the town’s music conscience is missing. You feel this loss of energy every day. Geneviève, while not setting out to create such a presence for herself — she was always just being herself — embodied a cultural rebellion many sought out here, a foundation of the Anacortes music scene. Even if you didn’t know her personally, you could feel her here. Her aesthetic was everywhere, in the small DIY music festivals, in the young artists coming to Anacortes looking for mentors and inspiration. Countless artists sought her counsel and influence. Geneviève’s creative aesthetic was felt everywhere, with Elverum’s — and it was accessible. (Her encyclopedic knowledge of the global underground zine-world inspired the creation of Goat Palace.) Every month since her death her ubiety has grown fainter. The loss does not.
part 1: the end
Written and recorded August 31st to Dec. 6th, 2016, in the same room where Geneviève died, using mostly her instruments, her guitar, her bass, her pick, her amp, her old family accordion, writing the words on her paper, looking out the same window.Phil Elverum (from his notes about “A Crow Looked at Me,” on Bandcamp)
A Crow Looked at Me (2017)
Track 1: Real Death
Track 2: Seaweed
Track 3: Ravens
Track 4: Forest Fire
Track 5: Swims
Track 6: My Chasm
Track 7: When I Take Out the Garbage at Night
Track 8: Emptiness pt. 2
Track 9: Toothbrush/Trash
Track 10: Soria Moria
Track 11: Crow
The music on this record is gentle — the lyrics are not. They remain brutal. These 11 songs open with a plaintive yet calm lament, “Real Death.” Elverum’s journal-like lyrics arrive with the punishing force of lines from a Coetzee novel, a dark, complimentary poetry to the actual music — numb and emotional and unflinching. Private thoughts revealed that are almost too severe to be shared. Despair and loneliness make us vulnerable — Phil presents these songs as a kind of obligation to the future.
Elverum, by turns, speaks to himself, to his child, and directly to his dead wife, now as dust and fragments of bone. She’s missing, but the space is filled with factual details and tactile sensations. Friends want to talk about her. The settings are always everyday life: the front porch, a room in the house, a package at the door, chemo, the backyard, an empty chair in the forest. The meanings and subtlety of “Ravens,” “My Chasm,” and “Emptiness pt. 2,” to select just three songs, for Elverum alone as a new father, shocked into single parenthood, open out into a sense of vertigo wrapped in medical procedures and unanswerable confusion. “There is nothing to learn.”
“A Crow Looked at Me” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2017) today is still the painful, raw sojourn of those first few days and months of the fading of a beloved wife and creative partner — mother of his child and keeper of a comforting home routine. It’s a narrative of wandering into a vast, confusing, and bitter wilderness. Elverum impulsively time travels in his narrative, forward and backward. All familiar signposts of his life are still present, but their purpose is now skewed, oddly unimportant. The narrative flows, by turns, from despair to clarity, to the open moment of memory. But there’s no comfort.
Before the release of “A Crow Looked at Me,” Elverum appeared at The Business in Anacortes, quietly inviting friends (mostly locals) with a few hand-drawn signs, into the packed record shop. Once word got out it became an overflowing regional audience spilling out onto the dark sidewalk outside the shop. Elverum entered and tentatively performed this entire record, resolved but convulsive, song after painful song, to an audience shocked into silence as much as in awe in the achievement of creating such a stark and honest portrayal of love and looming death. It was performance as vigil. It was a beginning. It was an end.
Thus, “A Crow Looked at Me” took its place, mile-marker one, an artist’s first chapter in contemplating the finality of the end of his life (while still living it), without fully comprehending what would be happening to him in the months and years to come. Seeing it in full relief today, this first record unintentionally released an augury inside a recording artist that would demand much more of him. Did he know he’d make three more records? I suspect not. Still, there would emerge more chapters to be written. More tenderness and laceration. The unbearable agony of forever, Elverum’s new constant creative companion.
part 2: the memory
Elverum’s life during the period he wrote “Now Only” was defined by the duality of existing with the praise and attention garnered by “A Crow Looked at Me,” and the difficult reality of maintaining a house with a small child by himself, as well as working to preserve Geneviève’s artistic legacy.Press Release (from the notes about “Now Only,” on Bandcamp)
Now Only (2017-18)
Track 1: Tintin In Tibet
Track 2: Distortion
Track 3: Now Only
Track 4: Earth
Track 5: Two Paints by Nikolai Astrup
Track 6: Crow pt. 2
“Now Only” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2017-18) extends Phil Elverum’s grieving song cycle — abruptly shifting from the shockwave of “A Crow Looked at Me,” into a calmer, unsentimental aftermath — densely lyrical, journalistic, open, with long narrative lines. Starkly real, Elverum’s patient chronicle slips easily between dark thoughts and tenderness, young love and the grave. His lines call forth all the haunted memories that will come and fill his newly blank pages — pages that never looked so empty, pages shocked blank that once held thousands of tiny, ordinary, comforting details from coasting through mundanity, as we all do. It’s memory as refrigerator magnets, clippings from magazines and books spilling from his hands onto the floor, sketches and photographs, scraps. This impulse to fill the scrapbook begins imperceptibly for the artist, unbidden, almost without intention or purpose or shape. From their meeting to Geneviève Castrée/Elverum’s dying, Elverum is taking the measure of all the echoes of a former life that have been blown into fragments. As with “Crow,” he never uses plaintive phrases, such as “passed on,” to refer to the death of Geneviève. She’s dead, and the dead rise.
“Now Only” is a six-song cycle, launching with “Tintin In Tibet,” reaching its summit with the album’s title track, “Now Only,” returning at the end to the couple’s daughter in “Crow pt. 2.” The journey is a study in the loss of serenity, skillfully done in a pastel blending of reality and magical realism. Like Karl Ove Knausgård, Elverum’s lyrics pour forth without regard to consequences for himself. In “Tintin In Tibet,” Geneviève moves from lover into “molecules dancing.” In “Distortion,” Elverum sees the dead of memory from his childhood return, now as a grieving husband with another “dead body,” and dry echoes in his empty, stifling house. In “Now Only,” we slipstream back to the hospital waiting room — the cancer floor — the summit of this record’s journey, and his own admission of how we avert our attention when confronted with the uncomfortable truth of the dying: we must all die, it’s ferocious, we must all see others die, we just can’t bear to see it standing before us, before our time of dying. It’s too raw, too painful to see what’s right in front of our eyes. Death ultimately arrives as a metaphor of returning from a long, “horrible” hot van ride, intimate strangers packed closely together, exhausted and left beside the road. Is this treasure? “[W]hat is left but this merchandise?…,” says Elverum. Pieces of a life.
And the dead do rise, metaphorically and literally. The song, “Earth,” takes us to the basic underworld of death: burial. Passing the record’s summit, we’re drawn down to what Elverum did with his wife’s ashes, following her cremation. Some of Geneviève’s ashes were buried, we’re told in the song, beneath three witch-hazels she planted in their yard, a triangular middle-English horticultural symbol representing family. Not buried deep enough, some of fragments of bone rise to the surface. Though literal, this image serves as the metaphor for the entire record: the dead return in many forms. Finally, some of the ashes are taken to a chair “on top of a mountain,” where over time Elverum observes other fragments of bone joining Geneviève’s, brought by “…coyotes, vultures, and gods.” Elverum comes to question form itself, imagining himself as a stone, “…becoming not-a-thing, abdicating form.” I wonder, as this song finishes, if we all — at some point in our lives — envy the freedom of the dead, long to escape the suffocating concerns of others when we ourselves are enveloped in a grief too heavy to manage. Our year of pandemic has made this a visceral, inescapable theme.
The Norwegian painter, Nikolai Astrup, died in 1928 at the age of 47. Two paintings — “Midsomer Eve Bonfire” (1915) and “Foxgloves” (1909) — serve like windows into a memory of and earlier life for Elverum in his song, “Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup.” Astrup, like Geneviève, was a creative life interrupted (at 35 rather than 47, and with a young child). Full of promise and plans for his new home studio, Astrup died unexpectedly. Live your life, these daily touchstones remind Elverum, in perhaps the longest lyrical structure on the record (followed closely by the song, “Distortion“). It’s interesting to note that Geneviève used bonfires in some of her own artwork, hers evoking a kind of duality of message — as both signals of distress or warning, as well as of welcome. Alstrup’s bonfires signal happy gatherings, dancing, and celebration, sending sparks into the night sky, fleeting fireflies “…to join the stars.” Elverum asks, when lives are cut so short, does it even matter what we leave behind? Paintings? Songs? Records? Thus, he decides to leave Anacortes, to build a new home, a new life, where foxgloves are rising from his untouched, soon-to-be-built-on ground — a site he and Geneviève chose together — as they do in Astrup’s 1909 woodland painting.
“Now Only” finishes with “Crow pt. 2,” and the dreams of children, of his child. The dead have risen and ridden through these songs, scattering themselves among the leaves and branches, dropped from tired hands and carried away by crows. The saddest image of all these songs can be found here, in this song, with Phil’s daughter asking to hear “mama’s record,” which Phil plays for her. He breaks down, sobbing — she stands, her little body mute and erect before the speakers, as her dead mother’s voice enfolds the little girl — frozen in time, a mother’s voice who will never grow older. “…[A] quiet echo on a loud wind.” We close the scrapbook, and pass mile marker two. Elverum has spoken his words, one feels, that he desperately hopes are true. So do I. Alone, he must now prepare for the road — to wander, to doubt himself, and to sing.
part 3: the road
I made my inner monologue into songs for no other reason than to release it from my skull. At some point during the writing I recognized a feeling in the vicinity of ‘pride’ about the work. It was a strange realization. These songs, and the facts of my life that the songs were made from, seemed like nothing to be proud of.Phil Elverum (from his notes about “(After),” on Bandcamp)
Track 1: Real Death (live)
Track 2: Seaweed (live)
Track 3: Ravens (live)
Track 4: When I Take Out the Garbage at Night (live)
Track 5: Emptiness pt. 2 (live)
Track 6: Soria Moria (live)
Track 7: Crow (live)
Track 8: Distortion (live)
Track 9: Now Only (live)
Track 10: Crow pt. 2 (live)
Track 11: Remarks
Track 12: Tintin In Tibet (live)
Distance without separation — how to perform a tragedy when the tragedy is real? The actor in the darkest play is playing a role. The novelist reading from the darkest novel, is sharing an invented nightmare. So how does a wounded man sing songs about death to the world from his weary road when his death is real? And how does an audience in a gothic church half way around the world (at Jacobikerk, Utrecht, Netherlands, Nov. 10th, 2017, at Le Guess Who? Festival) sit quietly, tickets in their pockets, hands folded in their laps, watch this man do it? They do it nervously. The road can do many things, but it can’t do the impossible.
As the songs on “After” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2018) spool out, whisper-soft, track after track, the first eight songs coming from “A Crow Looked at Me,” the final four from “Now Only” — the “new songs” — the air crackles with nervous tension. Unmuted camera shutters tick at the start of the hushed performance like bugs bumping against lights in the dark. Phil Elverum’s voice is strong, but strangely echoing in the large space, warming his voice and performance, making them feel like they’ve been captured in a jar — the combined effect creating the feeling of something on display — a painting, an artifact, another time. Two performances are unfolding on this record: the man inside himself working hard to prove he can get through his long, painful, confessional narratives, and the audience sitting quietly hoping he can, too — please make it to the end without faltering! It’s both beautiful and painful, on both sides of the microphone. Without thinking about it, from time to time, I held my breath as I played this record the first time. I still do.
As Elverum lets these breathless songs slip out of him — like a soft rain falling — he’s washing some of the weight from his heart by putting his songs into the world. He’s giving them away, emptying his music closet, tipping out the pockets, scattering his notes. And still, there’s an incomplete feeling across these 12 songs. The rush of applause after each song is a shock — a reminder that this is somehow a performance — an entertainment? — when it isn’t. Conventions must be observed, the audience seems to be saying with their gestures and the occasional sheepish hooting. Lines from the songs float up (some altered from their first release) to the surface and stick: “My knees fail. Words fail” (from “Real Death”); “I can’t remember. You did most of my remembering for me, and now I stand untethered…” (from “Seaweed”); “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you?” (from “Crow”).
He’s not done. At the great distance of 2021, we know that there will be one more record to come to complete the portrait of several rearranged lives. One of Geneviève’s self-portraits comes to mind, seeing more as she does — playfully out of the corner of one eye — than we do. The record tour is a peculiar obligation in the life of a recording artist. Fans want access. Publicists want publicity. Art as possession. The road can bring gifts of renewed energy and focus, as well as escape from the sometimes stultifying physical reality of preparing and pressing a new record long after the hot momentum of writing and demoing a new song has cooled into final tracking, mixing, mastering, and test pressings. As “Tintin In Tibet” cools the end of the set, following an avalanche of released energy and applause, then the shuffling of chairs and feet as the audience mummers its way out of the church, you can feel it, too. We do live a large part of our lives in the dreams of others. Some dreams can feel so real, and take far too long to fade from our memory.
part 4: the wisdom
Now this: / what’s this new version of love that intrudes / into the peace I thought I had? / This love has no recipient / but still lies there smoldering…Phil Elverum (from the song, “Love Without Possession,” on “Lost Wisdom pt. 2,” P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2017)
Lost Wisdom pt. 2 (2019)
Track 1: Belief
Track 2: When I walk Out of the Museum
Track 3: Enduring the Waves
Track 4: Love Without Possession
Track 5: Real Lost Wisdom
Track 6: Widows
Track 7: Pink Light
Track 8: Belief pt. 2
At the end, the last chapter of the tetralogy, “Lost Wisdom pt. 2” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2019), is about letting go. Love isn’t a possession to be sorted, collected, abandoned, or thrown onto a fire. It’s a river. Its movement is a renewal to be entered into over and over, forever. Love is as close as we ever get to immortality. Lost wisdom, once a mythology driven by the urgent testing of youth’s innocence, a forgotten dark language in music waiting to be rediscovered on a second-hand guitar, hidden places found on foot in wild landscapes, the smell of woodsmoke and saltwater, is found again in the simplest thing: desire. A glass of water, filled and poured out, to be filled again. Love transforms the artist in these final songs into something bright, burnished by grief, his long winter of ashes and loss, is now aware of time passing. He’s ready to start again.
“Lost Wisdom pt. 2” will braid together Phil Elverum’s first great love with his journey toward what he hopes will be his next, which sadly will end, too, this time… “divorced and estranged…,” also chronicled on this record. Joined by Julie Doiron, the music will open him again, find a new narrative aware of the power of two voices to tell the story, becoming a living, shared place — to heal, to hurt, to love and be loved, to understand a truth that we’re always living in parallel with what we can hold in our hands, and what we can’t. Live in your eyes, he says, live in your heart.
The presence of Doiron across these tracks on “Lost Wisdom pt. 2,” taking the vocal lead on “When I Walk Out of the Museum” and “Love Without Possession,” give the feeling that this record is indeed the coda, that we’re beginning to see how Phil Elverum — the man, the father, and the recording artist — is walking tentatively back into his own life. In the vocally intertwined “Enduring the Waves,” he’s exploring Buddhism and the wisdom of no escape. Time slipstreams from the receding presence of his deceased wife, Geneviève Castrée/Elverum, toward his mourned ill-fated second marriage, even to the small moments like when his daughter lets go of his hand — desire and suffering are inextricably connected, and there’s no way to not “Look right into the fire.” Elverum has covered a lot of ground. His wisdom found from a “life bulldozed,” has been painfully, doubly hard-earned.
Unlike “A Crow Looked at Me” and “Now Only,” however, these last eight songs unfold calmly and without the confusion and tension that came on earlier records. They’re still hard songs, just delivered with, perhaps, more curiosity and acceptance. The feeling here is a gentle weariness with calm-clarity as his companion. In “Widows,” nearing Mother’s Day, he’s an isolated single parent, heartbroken and perhaps afraid, like so many in his position. After all the miles he’s covered, in his songwriting and his touring, in his gallant attempt at a new marriage — trusting and acquiescent, as when he was young — in the final track, “Belief pt. 2,” “I believed in love and I still do. / …I love you. / I release you.” We know the gift we’ve given, we never know what gift was received. The cycle is complete. With the end of “Lost Wisdom pt. 2,” Elverum has covered the sweep of love in all of its forms. “I can only offer my love.” He’s lived several lives in three years, and left four stunning mile markers for us to follow.
As for real death, we all fail the test of death. If there’s any comfort to be found in the eternal cycle of being tested, it’s that we’re not alone in our failing. What we do, we do together. I’m reminded of the closing lines in a Rilke poem, from his Book of Hours: “Nearby is the country they call life. / You will know it by its seriousness. / Give me your hand.”
I started this piece almost three years ago. Months passed and I’d add a few more sentences, delete others — find myself in a hopeless muddle and give up. More months would pass without me looking at what I had. Finishing it now, as inadequate as this gesture feels, I can’t come up with a convincing excuse for not finishing it sooner. Part of my lack of faith probably grew out of the ambitious nature of trying to cover four enormous records — in one piece — by an artist with the range, skill, sensitivity, and stature of Phil Elverum — he stands apart. The task is overwhelming. But another thought comes from a deep, personal sadness that I didn’t have enough time to get to know Geneviève as a friend. I knew her, of course, as many people did in Anacortes — an acquaintance (such a small, unimportant noun). She was a person with so much light and power anyone passing into her orbit was bound to be drawn to her. She had gravitas. But I’m a writer, and even when confronted with my (at times) tremendous sense of inadequacy (combined with my huge sense of loss and worse, timing), when I’m writing about Geneviève, I feel a little better. It still hurts, though, and therein lies —for me, as merely an acquaintance — the mystery. I wanted more.
I was diagnosed with cancer the year Geneviève died: 2016. At her memorial that July at The Unknown, I was just weeks away from the start of my treatment cycle, a protocol that would envelop a full two years of my life, followed by years of recovery and tracking. My cancer was different and found early, hers was found far too late. These kinds of things are, at once, both enormous and ordinary — tragic and ridiculous and random and stupid. Cancer doesn’t unite people, in my opinion, it creates a unique anger within each person, like a fire. Cancer is a hunter. Why me? About the only thing I can believe in when I think about the destruction of a human being with the humanity and gifts and endless potential as Geneviève was, is that death is utterly unknowable for everyone. The black door.
I mourn the loss of Geneviève today as much as I did in July, 2016. In this, I’ve not moved anywhere. Closure is a lovely idea. I’m still searching for adequate (I gave up on perfect) words to describe the imperfection of all my discoveries from these four records, and the passing years with them. Right now, I’ve got nothing more than what you’ve read here. Is this grace?
A special thank you from The Palace to Nick Rennis and Evie Opp of The Business. Much of this article could not have been written without their friendship, generosity, fierce commitment to the Anacortes Music Scene, past and present, and their insightful curation of everything they bring to music. They directly and indirectly continue to provide a wealth of insight, inspiration, and courage for the author. I’m grateful.
Thank you, Phil.
Bless you, Geneviève.
I love you.Phil Elverum (from the song, “Belief pt. 2,” on “Lost Wisdom pt. 2,” P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2019)
I release you.
At the edge of this ocean I stand
and pour out the glass of water I brought.
There’s nothing else I can give