Saturday, May 21

Phil Elverum’s songs of loss gave me a language for that shapeshifter, pain | Music

I I first came across Phil Elverum’s music in August 2010, a month after my first boyfriend died. That summer I spent hours sitting stunned in the park with headphones on, listening to Elverum describe a landscape without color or movement: “no black or white, no change in light, no night, no golden sun.” That dissonance between the inner and outer worlds made sense to me as I watched the children play and the skaters pass by in the sun as if everything was normal.

I listened over and over to his album The Glow Pt 2, released in 2001 under the name Microphones, trying to make sense of the previous six months. I met Marc my freshman year in college – a pretty, hyperactive French guy who came into my life at a club night in Birmingham. I fell in love with his perfect mop of sandy blonde hair, the way he played the piano to the over-the-top melodrama of his beloved symphonic metal soundtracks and video games, and his habit of wrapping a USB cable around his neck like a protective charm.

Marc, left, and Tom.
Marc, left, and Tom.

We knew we were made for each other, so we weren’t too surprised when we found out we shared a birthday. In a few weeks we were practically living together in my shoebox room. We spent six months in an intensely volatile relationship, knotted with furious arguments, tearful separations, and even more tearful reunions.

As the holidays approached, I made plans to visit Marc in Lyon. His father came looking for him for the long journey back to France. Marc said goodbye out of sight, he didn’t want his father to know he was dating a boy. We hugged for a long time. As I walked away, I heard the sound of footsteps running behind me and suddenly I found myself on the ground, wrapped in a final hug.

Three weeks later, on a sweltering day in early summer, I opened Facebook to a message from someone I didn’t know. Marc had been hit by a car and had died. The driver was drunk, high, going twice the speed limit. Marc died instantly. I tripped over the bathroom and threw up. I spent the next few months sleepwalking through life. I attended his funeral in France, where I timidly introduced myself as “the English groom.” I visited his body lying in a quiet room and threw a white rose on a grave on a luminously beautiful hill.

The whole time I heard the microphones. Elverum’s music gave me a language for the shapeless void of pain. He sings about the absurdity of living after loss, his voice stretching painfully as if exorcising vowels: “My chest is still breathing / I hold it back / I am optimistic / There is no end.”

Elverum also fell in love. In 2004 he married Canadian artist Geneviève Castrée. They had a daughter in 2015. A year later, Castrée died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. Elverum has been singing about her ever since. His first album after his death, A Crow Looked at Me, released under the name Mount Eerie, chronicles the immediate aftermath. “Death is real,” he sings over and over again, as if not fully assimilated.

Listen to the audio from the microphones: The Glow Pt 2.

In the eight years between Marc and Castrée’s death, I got into electronic music and mostly left Marc in the past. But hearing Elverum’s album about his own loss made Marc refocus. A Crow Looked at Me recounts the experience of duel with the specificity of a laser beam. It ripped away the layers of sweetness and forgetfulness that had enveloped my memories of Marc, sending me spiraling. Pain is a shapeshifter, Elverum told me, and it never completely leaves you.

He expertly illuminated many tensions that I had never identified but instantly recognized, such as how pain isolates you, leaving people around you confused, powerless, fearful of your gigantic emotions, and not knowing how to help. The terrible paradoxes of not wanting to forget someone, but also not wanting to remember them; How sordid it feels to try to make art out of pain or reduce someone’s death to one step on your journey. “I don’t want to learn anything from this,” he sings. “I love you.”

A Crow Looked at Me, which contains beautiful songs so understated that Elverum describes them as “hardly music”, is not meant to be enjoyed, yet I played them over and over again. What was the value, I wondered, of him sharing something like this? Watching Elverum perform her songs of death in a candlelit church in East London in 2017, I realized that not only are her lyrics powerful, but also the act of sharing. After the concert, excited fans crowded around him at the merchandising table. I stayed behind, wondering how many people felt that he was talking about his own personal pain, just like me.

Today I listen to the music of Elverum as a ritual encounter with Marc. I also revisit the only video I have of us together. It lasts one minute and shows us plays fighting on a hot summer day. There is nothing extraordinary at this point, except that he was captured. After the tug of war wins, I pretend to sulk and he tousles my hair, laughing. I don’t see him often, as I fear his magic will diminish. The last time was in July 2020, on the 10th anniversary of Marc’s death. I had been listening to Mount Eerie all day. I decided to get closer to Marc’s mother and sisters after many years of silence. They were delighted to learn that ten years later, across the sea, someone else was thinking of Marc and missing him. That the world goes on and it doesn’t. That we let it go and we don’t, and that’s okay.

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