“Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not. And it’s not for singing about. It’s not for making into art.”
These words open the 2017 album “A Crow Looked at Me” by Phil Elverum (released under the name Mount Eerie). To this day, it remains the most haunting album I’ve ever listened to. It was written and recorded shortly after the death of Elverum’s wife, in the room she died in and with the instruments she owned, with each song detailing his experience of grief and mourning. This is an album entirely about death. Not the idea of death, not death as some abstract personification, but death as it actually is: real, bleak and unfair.
The album’s tracks feature sparse, acoustic instrumentation and emotionally dense lyrics. Elverum doesn’t rely much on metaphor or poetic language, and instead expresses his feelings through lyrics that are almost grisly in how literal they are. It’s essentially a journal, chronicling Elverum’s feelings and what was going on in his life in the days and months following his wife’s death. The first song, “Real Death,” immediately sets the tone of the album. Elverum talks about how just a week after his wife’s passing, a package addressed to her arrived that she’d ordered without him knowing: a backpack for when their one-year-old daughter eventually starts school. A backpack ordered with the knowledge that she wouldn’t be around to watch her grow up and use it. The song ends with the words “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.” There is no sense of closure or acceptance of what’s happened. Real death isn’t that simple. It doesn’t happen overnight, or over a week, or even over a year. Grief is a long, painful process, and that process is what the album captures so well. This album isn’t about acceptance or moving on — it’s about the pain and emptiness that will follow you to your grave, about the act of just trying to get through each day when the light of your life is gone.
The following songs weave painful stories from small moments in Elverum’s life, like going to take out the garbage and seeing his wife’s “bloody, end-of-life tissues,” or their daughter asking about the mom she’ll never get to know. Throughout, the reality of death is constantly at the forefront. The phrase “death is real” is repeated again and again, as though Elverum is having to remind himself that this tragedy isn’t just a dream that he’ll eventually wake up from. It’s real. This realization dominates the song “Toothbrush/Trash,” which starts with Elverum singing, “Today I just felt it for the first time, three months and one day after you died. I realized that these photographs we have of you are slowly replacing the subtle familiar memory of what it’s like to know you’re in the other room. To hear you singing on the stairs. A movement, a pine cone, your squeaking chair. The quiet, untreasured in-between times.”
This is what death is. Knowing you will never be with someone again. It’s the revelation that despite everything we as humans can accomplish, we’re just flesh and bone that will eventually wither away. It’s a deeply harrowing thought to realize that someday, you won’t be here. You’ll just be gone, unable to experience anything else. And then, one fine day, somebody will think of you for the last time.
It’s easy to go through life not really thinking about how limited your time really is. After all, it’s nowhere near a pleasant thought. But I think it’s important to be aware of it, at least some of the time. Albums like “A Crow Looked at Me” remind us that death is real and that we need to make the most of what time we do have. Message that friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Pick up an old hobby or passion you got too busy for. Learn a skill you always wish you had. Do whatever makes life fulfilling, spend time with whoever makes life worth living. Be with that special someone. Treasure every single moment while you’re both still here.