“Death is real/ Someone’s there and then they’re not/ And it’s not for singing about/ It’s not for turning into art/ When real death enters the house/ All poetry is done.” So commences Mount Eerie’s “Real Death,” a song that’s so sparsely and bleakly beautiful that it’s barely a song at all. It deals, openly and clearly, with the death of Phil Elverum’s wife Genevieve, who died of pancreatic cancer last year. The song is difficult listening, to be honest — it’s addressed to Genevieve, speaking directly to her in the second person, and listening feels like an intrusion on the most intimate and tragic of moments.
But Elverum has chosen to make it public, and one can only hope that doing so has helped him in some small part through the process of grieving and coming to terms with an unimaginable loss. And “Real Death” is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking, with Elverum’s trembling voice set over a simple acoustic guitar and a quiet, barely-there drum pattern. It’s the first song released from Elverum’s new Mount Eerie album A Crow Looked At Me, which is out on March 24. In a statement accompanying the song’s release, Elverum writes movingly about his wife’s death and about why he chose to make — and release — such painfully intimate material:
“Why share this much? Why open up like this? Why tell you, stranger, about these personal moments, the devastation and the hanging love? Our little family bubble was so sacred for so long. We carefully held it behind a curtain of privacy when we’d go out and do our art and music selves, too special to share, especially in our hyper-shared imbalanced times. Then we had a baby and this barrier felt even more important. (I still don’t want to tell you our daughter’s name.) In May 2015 they told us Geneviève had a surprise bad cancer, advanced pancreatic, and the ground opened up. ‘What matters now?’ we thought. Then on July 9th 2016 she died at home and I belonged to nobody anymore. My internal moments felt like public property. The idea that I could have a self or personal preferences or songs eroded down into an absurd old idea leftover from a more self-indulgent time before I was a hospital-driver, a caregiver, a child-raiser, a griever. I am open now, and these songs poured out quickly in the fall, watching the days grey over and watching the neighbors across the alley tear down and rebuild their house. I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known.
“Death is Real could be the name of this album. These cold mechanics of sickness and loss are real and inescapable, and can bring an alienating, detached sharpness. But it is not the thing I want to remember. A crow did look at me. There is an echo of Geneviève that still rings, a reminder of the love and infinity beneath all of this obliteration. That’s why.”