It’s unexpected that Phil Elverum, otherwise known as Mount Eerie, should tour his show at all. His musician and illustrator wife Geneviève Castrée passed away in 2016 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, leaving behind Elverum and their newborn daughter. From his grief he carved out A Crow Looked At Me, a skeletal album of premature late style, with death fashioned into its entire form.
Tonight’s unceremonious performance echoes the album in that sense; Elverum is alone, with nothing but a nylon-string guitar and a microphone. It’s as intimate as if Elverum was improvising these songs from the seat right next to you. Forest Fire and Toothbrush/Trash resist the trappings of metaphor before ending abruptly on an ostensibly unfinished thought. The audience is respectfully hushed but for ripples of modest applause.
“Can you see the river through the branches? / You know that it means you will die / and the pieces are turning”, Elverum once sang on 2012’s Clear Moon. A Crow Looked at Me, played almost in its entirety tonight, finds him struggling to make the same connections in life and nature. He squints at a gaggle of wild geese and foxgloves in Seaweed, unable to forge a link between nature and his life after Geneviève. “Death is real” is the opening gambit of Real Death; it’s vain to think art can contain it. Ironic, seeing as A Crow Looked at Me features Elverum’s best songwriting, and it basically finds him tearing his woodsy poetics to shreds. Showing no signs of stitching them back together again, the new material on show tonight – one song in particular, Distortion, unexpectedly opens the proceedings – finds him more introspective and candid than ever.
Nonetheless, these songs frequently aren’t “beautiful”; they’re repetitive, purely functional, and occasionally maddening. Anyone would be forgiven for leaving Saint Luke’s tonight in need of a good lie down. But then again, mourning isn’t a pleasant process. Elverum’s recent material would seem like a parody of earnest singer-songwriters – if it didn’t also include some of the most affectingly earnest songwriting of recent years.