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In his solo performance, Phil Elverum showed that both songwriting and grieving are an ongoing process
MOUNT EERIE at the Great Hall, Wednesday, September 20. Rating: NNNN
Walking into the Great Hall on Wednesday night, it was startling to see Phil Elverum there, in person, at the merch table. Like many people who probably didn’t know how to react or what to say, I thanked him for being there.
Earlier this year Elverum, who records as Mount Eerie, released A Crow Looked At Me, a devastatingly personal and raw account of his life immediately after the death of his wife, Quebec-born artist and musician Geneviève Castrée Elverum, from cancer.
At the time he called the collection “hardly music,” as it was an outpouring of stuff he needed to say to her, but the album – created in the Anacortes, Washington home where the couple lived with their infant daughter – is painfully intimate. You feel a bit like a fly on the wall or the dust in the room as Elverum sings his songs. But you settle into the experience of being there in grief with him, of being in his head.
If A Crow Looked At Me was an unprecedented invitation into the home of a previously guarded songwriter, the ensuing tour is almost a reversal of that process. Elverum is on the road with his daughter, carrying these “death songs” around and sharing them with fans, while also being necessarily protective and guarded.
Elverum opened with a long song that felt a part of the album, though not on it, then played through many of the songs from the album – Real Death, Forest Fire, Ravens, Seaweed, Soria Moria, Crow – with just his voice and a classical guitar. Though the record sometimes features piano, percussion and a drum machine, these were not missed. For these songs instrumentation almost doesn’t matter. It’s just pure thought, feeling, memory and idea.
Mid set, Elverum checked in with the standing crowd to see if they were comfortable. “Do you need a talking break,” he asked, “or a moving around break?” And it was then I noticed that our emotional discomfort was registering as physical restlessness. As dumb as it sounds to say, just being there was hard work. “I’m standing too,” he said, “out of solidarity.”
Elverum dedicated the tail end of his set to a handful of newer songs written after the album, songs that could easily encompass A Crow Looked At Me, Part Two if he chooses to make such a thing. He sang about how characters in paintings by Nicolai Fechin remind him of his grieving self and of Geneviève fantasizing about dying in a plane wreck (before realizing that he must go on living) talking about songwriting with Father John Misty and Weyes Blood at a desert music fest and then jumping on a bed together finding remnants of Geneviève’s bones in their garden and revisiting the island where her ashes were also scattered.
Clearly Elverum is still grieving, and his songwriting and recording and touring have been swept up in it. A number of times he stepped away from the mic and wiped away tears. I wanted to hug him.
But the unsettling part of the show was: where does his adoring, emotional audience fit into all of it? On the one hand, being there and buying his merch may be the best way a fan can support the now single dad but on the other, it points to the complicated relationship between deeply personal struggles and commerce, the merchandise we are left with after the fact.
Elverum politely but persistently asked that his guitar be turned up, and then his vocal mic, “all of me,” he said. He then sort of joked/admitted, “I’m trying to drown you out,” (despite the hushed focus of the crowd, you could hear everything, every distracting little movement and the sound of the dishes in the back). “I sing for you,” he repeated throughout his last song.
Although he was out in public, Elverum seemed to be trying to talk himself into silence and stillness and commune directly with Geneviève.