LIVE: Mount Eerie @ St John on Bethnal Green, London

By Ashwin Bhandari

On July 6 2016 prolific indie singer-songwriter Phil Elverum lost his wife, Geneviève Castrée, to a year-long battle with cancer. Roughly eight months later, Elverum released his eighth studio album ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, and decided to start playing shows again after a three-year hiatus. To call this album entertainment, or have enjoyment out of it, feels rather unsettling as it essentially details Elverum’s stages of grief on a month by month basis, all whilst raising their daughter by himself. Unlike other Mount Eerie records, it is minimalistic instrumentally. There are no ambient background samples or fuzzy textures to immerse yourself in, just Elverum’s voice and his wife’s instruments, all used sparingly to the extent where in an interview earlier this year he called ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ ‘barely music.’

Knowing all of this, this isn’t exactly a show you’d want to be ‘excited’ for in the conventional sense. There’s no support act for tonight, and whilst Elverum runs his own merch stand, fans are respectful and refrain from taking pictures with him or speaking to him for too long. An hour after the doors of St John are open, the audience sits in the pews and stands around the pillars of the church, taking in the rich architecture in preparation. Elverum is met with roaring applause as he takes his place on a stool and begins his set.

The opener is a new composition where Elverum reminisces about performing in his early twenties and eating fruit from his friend’s back garden whilst staying there. The response is joyful, and manages to set the tone of the evening in a far more lighthearted manner than anticipated.  However, once this is over, the despairing loom of ‘Real Death’ is upon us. The subject of mortality in songwriting is often romanticised, but here lyrics such as “Crusted with tears catatonic and raw, I go downstairs and outside and you still get mail“, each blunt observation becomes more gut-wrenching than the last. Elverum’s words and tantalizing guitar strumming engulf the church, with only the occasional ambulance siren or the roar of a motorcycle to momentarily distract from the overwhelming grief.

Through loss, mundane life events where Elverum tries to find meaning become endearing storytelling features, especially in regards to their house now being lifeless without his wife. “I had to close the windows and doors without you coming through, kept them open for as long as I could, but the baby got cold.” With a newer song, he talks about her empty chair at the dinner table, and crying whilst preparing breakfast with his daughter. It’s clear that even as time passes and the world moves around him, Elverum is accepting that life will never be the same again, with the 2016 election outcome being briefly touched upon on ‘Crow.’

Between songs, the audience mostly remains silent, which understandably Elverum finds awkward, and invites us to talk amongst ourselves. A fan shouts; “that was beautiful Phil!” and whilst the sentiment has the best intentions, it’s not really appropriate for a tonight. Another new song, in meta Sun-Kil-Moon-esque fashion, talks about having to sing these songs about his dead wife to drugged out teenagers at a festival, on a stage where Skrillex and Father John Misty would be playing the same evening. The audience erupts with laughter, which is probably the last thing you would expect a show like this, and the chorus is almost joyful in its refrain, despite the lyrics being”People get cancer and die, people get hit by trucks and die, people get erased for no reason.” Before the final song, another comedic moment, albeit unintentionally this time, occurs as the guitar picks up a slight transmission, to which he asks the sound engineer if he could have “less radio in the monitors.”

As the final guitar chord rings out, Elverum walks through the aisle and heads straight for the merch table to talk to fans. Once we all leave the church into the cold streets of London, it’s hard to process how you should feel at first. In the end, this harrowingly intimate show with a courteous audience gives you hope that Elverum is getting as much catharsis out of this as fans are.