Arts & Culture

‘Mount Eerie’ haunts Columbus Theatre with idiosyncratic rhythms

Phil Elverum shares anguish through 'A Crow Looked at Me' live set list alongside aging hipsters

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

During last Friday night’s sold-out performance, prolific singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Phil Elverum submerged a Columbus Theatre audience under an entrancing and heart-wrenching set of stripped-back sonics. The aging hipsters and stick-and-poke-wearing Rhode Island School Design undergraduates who filled the seats were all wholly unprepared for the night’s devastation. Playing under the Mount Eerie monicker, Elverum collated the majority of the set from his latest collection of songs, “A Crow Looked at Me.” One of the year’s most critically-acclaimed releases, the record laments the July 2016 passing of Geneviève Castrée, Elverum’s wife and fellow singer-songwriter, from terminal pancreatic cancer.

Understandably, “A Crow Looked at Me” and its accompanying tour could not possibly be divorced from the death narrative surrounding the album. Elverum recorded the LP in his dead wife’s room and uses her guitar, bass and amplifier to exhort his anguish. Castrée inhabits every note of the album. Her spirit haunts every sparse guitar interval and cloaks each of Elverum’s defeated lyrical inscriptions. The album is a multisensory experience — it should not only be heard, but profoundly felt. It is a slow-burning, agonizingly cathartic punch, laden with idiosyncratically devastating documents of Elverum and his young daughter’s increasingly hollow existences.

The necessarily personal nature of the record calls into question why Elverum would choose to tour behind it and play his elegies for an audience that, inherently, could never relate the way he can. What if these pained evocations wrenched directly from the pits of his shriveling heart fall on unsympathetic ears? Such is the principal problem facing the confessional singer-songwriter ­— a dilemma Elverum is more than aware of.

“Death is real / … and it’s not for singing about,” begins “Real Death,” the opening track of both “A Crow Looked at Me” and Friday night’s set. The lyric interrogates the effectuality of art as mourning, but the song ultimately moves from hints of creative and philosophical probing to intensely sad descriptions of the empty daily life Elverum has taken on since his wife’s passing. Right away, it is evident that Elverum is not writing to elicit empathy; he is singing because he physically has to. The music he plays serves as a sort of coping mechanism, one that hinges on songwriting’s dual capacities for temporary liberation from trauma and for a way of obsessively sorting out trauma’s individual parts. Between songs, he vacantly stares into the distance and sighs weakly into the microphone, disrupting his plaintive set only to wipe away sweat and what must surely be tears from his face. For all he cares, he could be singing into a void.

By the end of “Real Death,” Elverum has unequivocally seized the attention of a crowd which, by this point, can only help but to watch with pious intensity. Nobody even has the audacity to interrupt the set with photographs. He launches into other tracks from his 2017 magnum opus, perhaps most notably “Soria Moria,“ which interpolates elements of “The Moon,” a Microphones song that’s inarguably one of the sublime high points of Elverum’s discography. The highlight capably reinterprets the lyrics and melodies of “The Moon” in light of Castrée’s death. Guitar strumming accompanies Elverum’s characteristically gentle cadences, every aspect coupling the gravity of his wife’s death with imagery cradled from sublime Norweigian landscapes.

Elverum followed up songs off of “A Crow Looked at Me” with entirely new material. The tracks he debuted similarly mourned Castrée, including “Tintin In Tibet,” which directly addresses her and self-consciously alludes to the fact he released an album written entirely about her death. This tendency of Elverum to continue grieving by way of his music further evidences songwriting’s potential as a generative mode of mourning.

Though the show could not have possibly lasted more than an hour and a half, time ostensibly suspended itself as Elverum compressed an entire lifetime’s worth of memories into the set.