Mount Eerie At The Masonic Lodge At Hollywood Forever, Wednesday April 12th 2017
‘You are alright with this?… well. okay… I mean, this is fucked up, this is some fucked up shit I am doing to you,’ said Phil Elverum after he had already played about 9 songs of his recent album ‘A Crow Looked at Me’. ‘You know what you were in for’ he added. And I am certain everyone knew what they were in for when they bought a ticket to one of his two sold-out shows at the Masonic Lodge of Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Never a concert played there had felt more in synch with the place. In 2015, Elverum’s wife, Geneviéve Castrée, died in their home from an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. In the months that followed, he wrote the album, ‘A Crow Looked at Me,’ and recorded it with her instruments in the room where she died. Everyone who was sitting inside the Lodge had to be aware of this story, and everyone was now listening to Phil Elverum’s painful songs, very, very quietly. It was probably the most quiet concert I have ever attended, I was even feeling guilty to be shooting pictures, the click of my camera was louder than everything else in the room, and I ended up only pushing the button when people were clapping between songs, while Elverum was painfully recovering from a song and preparing for the next one. The sound of the guitar was very low, like a little murmur with very little arrangements, often going into repetitive loops as accompaniments for his monotonous and monochord vocals, reciting the most poignant poetry ever. The result was more spoken words than real singing and music, the narrative of all the songs were about death and what death of a close one will do to you, and the atmosphere got very heavy, bringing nevertheless a few unexpected laughs.
‘I’m gonna play for an hour, 13 songs,… okay?’ he told us at the beginning of the show, as if he was looking for an approval of some sort to start his diary lecture. You could call his collection of songs a diary because we are not talking about cryptic writing here, his lyrics were the most direct ones I have ever heard, gut-punching but never sentimental, and if metaphors there were, they were lying in the way things like a forest or a store can transform themselves to echo a profound grief: ‘They say a natural cleansing devastation, burning the understory, erasing trails. There is no end./But when I’m kneeling in the heat throwing out your underwear the devastation is not natural or good. You do belong here. I reject nature. I disagree,’ he sang during ‘Forest Fire’….’ I now wield the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion’, he continued during ‘My Chasm’. Each line was a devastating ascertainment and as the guitar was very quiet, it let us hear each detail of Elverum’s tragic inventory.
‘I watched you die in this room, then I gave your clothes away/I’m sorry. I had to /and now I’ll move./I will move with our daughter,’ he moaned during the song ‘Ravens’, ‘You had cancer and you were killed and I’m left living like this/Crying on the logging roads with your ashes in a jar/thinking about the things I’ll tell you/when you get back from wherever it is that you’ve gone/but then I remember death is real.’
I was listening with a million lumps in the throat, not knowing exactly why I was there, looking at this man suffer and tell us how much he was in pain… ‘I keep picking you berries’, oh man, can I at least keep a dry eye? It was difficult to hear, hurtful and I began to wonder, why are all these people here? Did they all experience the same personal tragedy and is this a way to heal?
‘I can’t get the image out of my head of when I held you right there and watched you die,’ he also sang during ‘Swims’,… ‘your last gasping breaths/I see it again and again/as the breeze blew in/The room I still don’t go in at night because I see you.’
This had nothing to do with some vague generalization about death here, the songs were excruciatingly personal and filled with details of everyday life that made Geneviéve’s death jump in our faces at each song. The songs were about simple but heartbreaking things such as a package that she had secretly ordered for their daughter and that he received after she died, her ashes he poured over the place where they were supposed to build a house, the photographs slowly replacing the memories, the bathroom garbage of ‘dried out bloody end of life tissues’ he had to throw away… there was an abundance of vivid and raw imagery, intended to scar you,… he was right, this was some fucked up shit he was doing to us.
He interrupted his singing when a laugh erupted from the crowd after the line ‘But then only 2 months after you died our counselor died./All at once, her empty office with no light on as if her work was done’… It was so tragic that I suppose a laugh was a sort of relief and the only way to make sense of this absurd tragedy. ‘Who would write that in a script?’ Phil asked us.
It was a strange experience, watching him standing with his guitar during the whole time, wiping his eyes between the songs, looking down, or making nervous moves with his head during his singing. ‘Do you like this Christmas tree?’ he asked us pointing to a tree installed next to him, which looked totally dead. The most depression song I know may now sound like an uplift after attending this uber-depressive performance.
‘Death is real’ is a line that came back in two songs, like in ‘Real Death’, which describes with such precision and accuracy human’s powerlessness in front of death. ‘Real Death’ could have been the title of the album, but instead he picked something else, just because a crow looked at him, as if he was looking for answers and echoes of Geneviève everywhere in nature.
It was a short performance, and when he was done after another new song entitled ‘Tintin in Tibet’ – Geneviève was an illustrator – I wanted to give him a hug, but he was already gone,… I also wanted to ask all these people, ‘Was this helpful?’ Was all this unfolding of grief cathartic for you?… ‘There is nothing to learn’, Elverum says in one of his songs, his performance was not a 12-step recovery program after the death of the love of your life, this was a scream, a pain exposed in all its rawness and horror, and beyond the devastating grief, the overwhelming emptiness, and the laughable absurdity, his performance was certainly more about love than it was about death.