Not many things can transform you – I guess it depends on your ability to be transformed – but for some reason music has long been that to me. Or rather: I thought it was. Or better: it is, but not in the way I long thought it was.
Music is a cultural industry as anything else, and for the audience it is a game without any real consequences other than aesthetical, leading to discussions about the records’ respective qualities and endless end-of-the-year top lists. Most of what I considered as transformative was actually music that transformed the way I experienced music – which is already a great, if tautologic, quality.
Mount Eerie’s latest album Sauna (2015), was definitely one of those albums. Its atmospheric quality, mixed with strong songwriting and literal lyrics struck me as something quite unlike my previous musical favorites. It was an achievement in its own terms, and Phil Elverum, who has never wished to repeat himself throughout his 20 years’ career, started to wonder where he could go next – how he could top that album which sounded like the perfect conclusion to his production under the Mount Eerie moniker. As he said in a recent interview, he started thinking about going deeper into the mundane, the diarist songwriting that was already hinted at in songs on that record like "Pumpkin” and "Youth”.
Then, his wife, artist, writer and musician Geneviève Castrée was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months after giving life to their daughter, and died in July 2016 – giving a heartbreaking quality to the very factual lyrics written in the wake of that tragedy, when Elverum decided to record the 11 new songs that make up A crow looked at me. Inspired by the artless writing of Karl Ove Knausgård and the production of William Oldham’s sparsest records, it is paradoxically an extremely rich album, both documenting the grieving process and offering an attention to the slightest details of life, turning the reflection on the absurdity of all this into something unexpectedly hopeful.
We will never know what the factual follow-up to Sauna would have sounded like in other circumstances, now that the "futility” of making any music at all (as he puts it in the same interview) has taken up what could remain of personal ambition. Like everyone, I felt excited about the release of that album when it was announced two months ago – and felt bad for being excited about it. But there was the feeling that Elverum was probably the only one able to deal with this in a way that would not merely be cathartic nor pathetic, but truly transformative through his music – and thus unfitted for the usual game of rating and ranking albums based on personal tastes.
I have been interested lately in switching focus from what music can be to what music can actually do. It is obvious in the case of concerts, when you don’t just listen to the music but rather live a whole, collective, experience. Even with recorded music, if we leave aside quality for a while, a song can do many things: it can move, make dance, sing along or reflect, configure our attention in such ways that it can recall images or ideas, infer a sense of community, soothe, divert, stimulate, display interesting sonics or construction, unravel our representations, create a particular atmosphere... In our globalized, hyper-mediatized, industrially-entertained, post-everything world, it’s probably more fruitful to think about creative practices as ways of interfering in this general economy of information – merely acting as framings for experience of various kinds and qualities – than giving them a predetermined goal based on what we are used to.
After all, before being an industry, song-based music can serve religious or ritualistic purposes, be used for its anthemic power to unite a group or simply give oneself courage. A crow looked at me is none of it – and that’s actually the reason why it can be transformative – inventing its own experience as it unfolds and shedding new light, not only on Elverum’s back catalogue, but on life as a net of interlocked experiences.
In another recent interview, when asked about what he might do in the future, he answers as such: "Something that engages the mind, something that’s not about atmosphere. I feel like the records I used to make were more about atmosphere and the world that it creates, and production, and spending a lot of time in the studio. I’m not so inspired to do that now. I want to engage the brain.”
It sounds like something a conceptual artist would say – and the link of the so-called conceptual writers with the deeply personal is nothing new – but his music remains extremely sensuous. The level of care and intricacy in the music is as beautiful as the words, reflecting on memory, time, loss, love and personal narrative, are down-to-earth and precise. The layers of guitars pile up, the subtle piano touches collide with the strummed chords, the accordion drones, the drum machine, at times almost inaudible, adds a foreign, reassuring, presence to his confessional vocals.
There are extremely moving moments when a song starts to take shape and he stops it at that embryonic stage – preventing it from being any kind of aesthetical representation of death. This is "barely music” as he calls it, reduced to its most minimal components. Listening to it feels like breaking into one man’s intimacy, in almost voyeuristic fashion, but the result makes you turn your attention towards the ones surrounding you in a new-found intensity. It’s not as much engaging the brain as engaging the heart – not only to the music, but to the quality you fill your own life with.
I always tell that great pop music fills me with joy, empathy and resilience. A crow looked at me certainly does so, and in a much sharper way. Is it transformative yet? It proves at least to be a more effective interface than many day-to-day communication processes. This is music to feel what it is like to be alive in this world’s adversity. This is music to help becoming more human.