Death is real.
Someone’s there and then they’re not,
and it’s not for singing about.
It’s not for making into art.
-The first lines from the song “Real Death”
off the album A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie
On 9 July 2016, Geneviève Castrée died from pancreatic cancer about a year after giving birth to her first child, and a month after her husband, the musician Phil Elverum, launched a Kickstarter to help pay for her medical costs. Less than a year later, on 24 March 2017, Phil, under the current name of his music project, Mount Eerie, released A Crow Looked At Me, his first album since her death. A year after that, on 16 March 2018, he released a second album, Now Only. Where his previous work drew on universal themes, often only alluding to personal matters in off-hand ways, these two albums were noteworthy most obviously for their gut-wrenching specificity on his experience of grief, freely spoken as much as sung in a way that implied the melodies and music were second to his diaristic chronicling of loss. If previous work was full of spiritual searching and grandiose poetry, A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only were purposefully un-poetic. He spoke, but there was nothing to say of any consequence, no answers or epiphanies. The death he had witnessed was, to quote, “bottomless and real.”
Phil’s last album under his former band name, The Microphones, was (not coincidentally) called Mount Eerie, and it described the movement of a soul through death and out into the universe using massive, almost religious imagery :“Oh no, I am lacking / I want what I see / You, fireball, have rolled away and shaded valleys”; “On a mountain’s mane I climb to my claim / And I’m aimless, alone, and unraveling / And above, barren wastelands stare at me / They know my name”; “You have a bright disguise / mountains and light / But, universe, I see your face in blackest night, and you see mine / Oh, universe, I see your face looks just like mine.” Compare that to a verse from “Emptiness Pt. 2” off A Crow Looked at Me: “But actual negation / When your person is gone / And the bedroom door yawns / There is nothing to learn / Her absence is a scream / Saying nothing / Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about / Back before I knew my way around these hospitals / I would like to forget and go back into imagining.” Or this line from “Forest Fire,” off the same album: “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.”
Metaphor was gone, or where it existed it was called out, given context by the rest of his career, silly and meaningless in the face of what had come to face him in the real world, the things music couldn’t escape from. He describes collapsing on his front door step receiving a package in Geneviève’s name a week after she died. He sings about making other people uncomfortable with his own grief, of changing a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion. He tells the story of playing these songs to a bunch of drunk kids at some music festival, and leaning against Skrillex’s tour bus later looking into the sky. He speaks of boiling eggs and making toast for breakfast. It’s overwhelming, it’s intensely, uncomfortably personal, it’s intimate and loving and heart-rending and powerful. And still, dozens of listens later, after memorizing the albums’ contours and cadences, their strange shapes and layouts, I don’t know quite what to make of them.
Everything Phil had made before I had felt connected to on some core level. The way he described the world, the way he described his thoughts and his feelings, his imagery, his use of sound and style–they were me. They described the way I felt about the world and helped me articulate those feelings. I knew Phil. I got him. It felt like I had a hold on it all, like I could reach in and pull it towards me, like I owned some piece of the experience of it, was owed that piece I saw myself inside. That is the agreement when you purchase art, after all: I put my money down to see, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, so I get to say what it is. I get to say whether it’s good or not. I get to take the experience of it, the art, I get to hammer it into something I can use, whether that be a review, a rating on Letterboxd, or just something stored away in my memory bank as a reference, as a funny story about how I only saw it because I lost a bet. The art I experience, good or bad, is mine.
But A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only aren’t mine. I payed money for them, but I don’t own them. I memorized all the lyrics, but they’re not for me to use, to bend to my own whims and needs. One day, I listened to “Real Death” while driving to work, and I started to sing along, the way I do every other Mount Eerie song, and I immediately felt sick. What was I doing? This wasn’t my story to tell, even using Phil’s words–it’s not my song to sing. It was someone else’s consuming grief, moments that I was privileged enough to hear stories about, but never my own moments. Really, I don’t know Phil, and I never will. I will never meet Geneviève. I could sob over the album (as I did, many many times), could empathize with his pain, but I would never really know it because I am not him, never felt his love–I was suddenly a ghoulish spectator, using someone else’s pain as an object for my own entertainment and catharsis. Whenever I brought up A Crow Looked at Me to people, I would say it would be the best album of the year, hands down–if I felt comfortable calling it something so trivial. I didn’t then. I still don’t. It’s not mine to speak of like that.
But what is different about these two albums versus any number of movies or books or paintings or poems or video games that have come before and will come after? Cameron Crowe dedicated Elizabethtown to his dead father, and yet I feel no twinges of guilt calling that a piece of shit. I have enough ownership of my experience with that film to separate that lovely sentiment with what I actually had to sit through–my experience feels solitary and free from his own. Shoah is not just about one death, but millions of them, and it uses the documentary form to chillingly, hauntingly tell the story of just a few of those deaths, and of the system that caused them. Yet, I have no problem throwing it on a list somewhere of “greatest films.” It doesn’t feel trivial to call it that. I mean–I bought the Blu-ray after all. It’s mine, I say to myself. Hell, let’s get low stakes: I own a DVD of A Talking Cat!?!, which, despite having the benefit of featuring the sleepiest Eric Roberts voice-over work in history, is no one’s passion project, no one’s artistic depiction of grief, no one’s be-all end-all personal statement. And yet: a couple dozen people spent days of their lives making it, didn’t they? They moved just a bit closer to death doing nothing more significant than trying to entertain me. What gave me this entitlement to think of that time as solely mine?
When we use the unwieldy phrase “commodity fetishism,” what we mean is something more visceral and distressing than that cold, economic, theoretical language implies. The phrase is shorthand for an epiphany, for a sudden change in focus: it’s a pair of They Live sunglasses handed down to us by Karl Marx that cuts through metaphor and sees the intent inside. It says that the products we see, buy, and sell, they have prices attached to them, they have costs and measures that say, “I am worth this much money. I am worth this much loyalty. I am worth this much of you,” and we allow them (really, beg them) to speak in this “I” way. We give being to these things, and act as if that being is inherent. We create a fetish, imbuing the inanimate and the dead with some sort of soul.
I can buy a vinyl copy of Now Only from Phil’s website right now for $19. We see that $19, and that becomes the thing: I paid for this, I now own this, and it is worth nineteen dollars. That is its soul. The vinyl copy says of itself: “I am worth $19.” But this price is unreal. This cost is a disguise. It is a smokescreen that allows us to hand-wave away the fact that, when I send Phil that $19, I am not buying an object so much as entering into a relationship. It is reciprocal. The $19 serves as a way to distance myself from the real cost of this vinyl record: The plastic. The paper. The ink. The delivery person who drove it to my house. The delivery person who drove the original copies to Phil’s house. The person who drove the plastic and paper and ink to the record pressing plant. The people who work in that plant. The person who designed the cover. The people who invented vinyl records in the first place. Phil. Geneviève. Her death. Their daughter. On, and on, and on, until we can’t help but realize that $19 is an elaborate code that really means dozens, hundreds, thousands, of interactions and moments, people, loss and joy and hardship and prosperity, that it means a series of relationships that we are not separated from, a series of interactions that keep happening long after the superficial trade has been made. The monetary transaction made for this record is a comforting fiction that freezes a single interaction of this chain (an impersonal part of the chain at that) in time, and says: this is what I cost. This is my being and my soul. It is, like all effective euphemisms, one that technically tells the truth but lies through omission and willful ignorance to remove responsibility and impact.
So what is different about A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only compared to Elizabethtown or A Talking Cat!?! or Shoah? For the length of their playing, A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only pull back part of the lie. None of these things are mine alone, but I am conditioned to see the fetish of the object and not everything and everyone that allowed the object to come into my possession. By abandoning universal statements, by being so disquieting and honest and personal, by selling you Phil’s grief and love and sorrow face to face, these albums reveal the fiction of the commodity in a way that is distressingly clear. I didn’t just buy an album: I entered, in a tiny way, into Phil’s life, and he into mine, and we opened our doors for each other. The difference I feel between these records and the rest of the art I experience is not ontological or real. It is a difference of honesty regarding art in a capitalist society and the selfishness that has bred in me, making me think that the things I enjoy are mine and that my responsibility ends when I plunk down twenty bucks. It is a mentality stoked by being sold as an identity, or an experience, or just a shiny trinket that the price tag tells you is now yours, no strings attached. The truth is, all there is are strings, connections and webs of being that ring out into the thrum of living.
This is not to say that we need to suddenly stop all art criticism, or that no work can be mocked, or that it is wrong to identify with or make personal the things that impact and change you; it is instead to say that the price of an object (or experience) does not contain the real cost to those who made it and to those who would consume it. The smoke and mirrors of the signifier does not show the real scope of that which is signified. When you walk into the theatre and put your matinee money down to see the Overboard remake no one asked for, see it for the shorthand it is, representing something much larger and more fraught than its simplicity belies. Watch for the doors you’re opening and the relationships you just accepted. If you really look, you’ll see them everywhere.