On both sides of the Clyde tonight, the people of Glasgow are grappling with two great forces of injustice. On one front, the most galvanizing rap group in a generation scraps boisterously with those forces which can be changed – the laws and the distribution of resources, the notion that some of us matter while others do not. In a church across the water, another group has gathered before what used to be the altar to reckon with those forces which cannot.
Phil Elverum has come to St Luke’s to sing songs about his wife, comic illustrator and fellow musician Geneviève Elverum née Gosselin, who died of inoperable pancreatic cancer last year. Gosselin was diagnosed four months after giving birth to their daughter and passed away more than a year later, “way beyond when many would have surrendered to rest”. In the months immediately following her death, her husband recorded an album on which he plainly conveys his experiences before, after and at the moment of her passing. Phil Elverum’s past work as Mount Eerie has been rich in metaphor and musical embellishment, conjuring immersive sonic worlds of a transcendental scale and tenor from distortion, choirs, cymbals and empty space, in songs which have sometimes vied to encompass the universe itself. Though A Crow Looked at Me is no less enveloping, the spaces it sketches with acoustic guitar and Elverum’s voice are significantly smaller – a bedroom; a house; a chair on a hill, pointed at the sunset, upon which ashes rest. Using literal, straightforward language, Elverum conveys in intimate detail the unspeakable emotional truth of Gosselin’s death.
Tonight he performs much of that record in order, bookended by some new songs. We are seated in rows. His guitar case rests, lid open, in the centre of the stage. He sings with his eyes closed and determinedly, without hesitation. Occasionally, between songs, he rubs his face with his hand or sips from a steel flask. On Toothbrush/Trash he sings: “three months and one day after you died / I realised that these photographs we have of you / Are slowly replacing the subtle familiar / Memory of what it’s like to know you’re in the other room”. Some of the songs are minutely changed in tonight’s renditions, with verses cut or added, sections speeded up or expressed with a different rhythm.
At time it feels like an intrusion, to be listening to Elverum sing quietly about throwing out Gosselin’s clothes and asking her, across the great divide, whether she likes Canada geese. But this is only by accident. Elverum has painstakingly documented the most difficult moment in his life and travelled the world to share it. It is an act of tremendous bravery and generosity, and we feel privileged to be present for such an intimate and astute study of this most ineffable of subjects. But at the same time Elverum seems humbled by our empathy. “Thanks again for being here. Have I said that enough?”, he asks. As deeply sad as the music is, each song he plays for us feels like another sandbag thrown over the side of a hot air balloon.
He ends the set with new songs that speculate about the future while excavating his deep past. He shares childhood memories, and the story of when Gosselin and he met first met. We’re told about their first tour together, in which they camped out in places they shouldn’t have and read aloud to each other the only book they brought for the journey; Tintin in Tibet, Elverum sings, and we laugh. In one song, a young Elverum explains to his mother that he plans to cheat death by doing something with his life that he’ll be remembered for. No one at St Luke’s tonight will forget the evening we shared.
For more on Mount Eerie click here.