Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Sad Songs Aren't Sad Anymore

"Well, I guess I'm doing this again," I said to myself as I plugged my phone into the aux cable and started my Hyundai. My commute is about 30 minutes long, and I knew from Monday's experience that I would be able to hear nine of the album's eleven songs. I also knew from Monday's experience that the drive would be somber, and my attitude for the day would be extremely contemplative and somewhat grateful.

This began on March 21, when I noticed a tweet from a musician I really like:

Several days later, Twitter informed me that he liked the following tweet:

That was enough to push me to look up this song, and I listened to it alone, in my basement, before heading to bed. And I read a small amount about the album, and I realized that Mount Eerie is the man who formerly performed as The Microphones, who I had a vague knowledge of thanks to the only mix CD Adrienne ever gave me.

For the next few days, I asked people and the internet for the saddest song ever. Kim guessed the popular answer was Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven". The internet had some lists, like Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" or George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today". Shawn thought of musical numbers like "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables and "It's Quiet Uptown" from Hamilton. I thought about all of the sad Elliott Smith songs I love, like "I Didn't Understand" and "Everything Means Nothing to Me".

And I realized that all of those songs sound like Beck's "Sexx Laws" now, because I have heard "Real Death" by Mount Eerie.

I couldn't stop thinking about "Real Death", so I bought the album.

I listened to it for the first time on Monday, and sat in my parking space as the final two songs played. I went about my work day, and that night I felt so grateful to be with my family, on the couch with my children. I sat with my daughter on my lap, playing with the hair on the back of her head and touching the little divot on the back of her neck while she watched cartoons.

So, here is what I suggest:

First, acknowledge that you want to hear "Real Death". Partially out of curiosity, but mostly because you want to be in awe of the power of this song, even though there is a very good chance it will make you cry. You've cried at art before. It's fine.

Are you ready? Can you carve out two and a half minutes to play this song, and maybe another five minutes to process what you've heard? Good. Listen, and when you're done keep reading below:

Now, you're ready to read a little bit about the song and the album. You can let the Bandcamp player continue to stream the other available songs, "Raven" and "Crow" while you read the author's description of the album:

August 31st to Dec. 6th, 2016 in the same room where Geneviève died, using mostly her instruments, her guitar, her bass, her pick, her amp, her old family accordion, writing the words on her paper, looking out the same window.  
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.) Then 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.

- Phil Elverum
Dec. 11th, 2016

You can read album reviews, where people like you and I try to process what they're hearing:


You can read a profile of the artist, and that can lead you to the profiler's piece in the New York Times describing what it was like for him to lose his daughter to an impossibly rare accident.

Perhaps now you are thinking, "Why the hell did I do this to myself? Why would I buy this and subject myself to more of this music?" I don't know. Speaking for myself, it has a hold on me. It's remarkably sad, but it's still remarkable.

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