“A Crow Looked at Me” is a glance at the stream of consciousness ramblings of Phil Elverum as he mourns the loss of his wife Genvieve Castree to cancer in July of 2016. Besides the final song where Elverum makes eye contact with a crow, later hears his daughter talking about a crow in her dreams, and finally finds peace in the fact that the crow is the reincarnation of his wife, the album doesn’t dabble in a whole lot of symbolism or poetic devices, and the music consists of matching simplicity. It’s a piece without answers or goals—it’s simply a man trying to find catharsis in speaking his day-to-day truth.
The phrase “death is real” underpins everything said on the work and Elverum specifically vocalizes it a handful of times. He doesn’t necessarily try to push away the death of his wife, but he still needs to remind himself that this is all real with every turn of events. In one instance, he speaks about wondering when his wife will be back, but then he remembers “death is real.” There’s never really a moment of trying to find the best out of the situation or wondering off into some sort of philosophical point—Elverum is devastated and Genvieve is all he can think about.
Religiously, the work doesn’t make any references to specific systems of belief, but Elverum hits the core of what most people think about with death and passing on. The most obvious example comes after his mention that his house is cold because he refuses to shut the window that he opened so his wife could breathe easier on her dying day. Besides the obvious difficulty with closing the window and remembering that terrible day, Elverum adds the possibility that something may need to escape the room. It’s light and quick and again we see how he doesn’t seem to have any answers about his loss.
Obviously, everything is dark, but Elverum also seems to stumble upon facts that give the album particularly impactful, depressing moments. The opening track talks about a package addressed to his wife that came a week after her death. It was a backpack, a gift for their daughter, and Elverum mentions that his wife was planning ahead for a future that she would not be involved in. This again plays into the “death is real” line because even when his wife saw what was going to happen to her, she couldn’t even face it herself.
He later speaks about the counselor his wife and him were seeing and uses this to talk about the passage of time. As his wife became weaker and weaker, he had to drive closer and closer to the entrance to the building so that she could make it. Then, at the end of the tale, he mentions that the counselor herself passed right after his wife’s death, “as if her work was done.” It’s a moment that you really can’t add any words to—it knocks the wind right out of your lungs.
As a whole, what makes the whole work beautiful is the fact that Elverum doesn’t try to do anything with the situation. As he describes: “[death,] it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art, when real death enters the house all poetry is dumb.” This is a man speaking about his tragedy, it’s not a man teaching how to do so.