The Music of Trauma

By Clayton Ambrose
Music Journalist

Emotion and music have been tightly knit together for centuries, since long before it was an art-form of the masses. In its current form, the musician funnels their inner feelings into their art for consumers to absorb or reject, relate or dismiss. As the barrier of what is acceptable lyrical content fades further and further into the ether, we get albums concerning the most complex and difficult of human emotions, which includes grief and the processing of trauma. Albums that deal with these concepts lie on a kind of spectrum, a spectrum that I will use three albums to define. You have albums like The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, which tackles hard subjects with a filter of hope, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, which deals with similar topics with a more appropriate aesthetic, and finally, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me. This album is quite honestly groundbreaking in its heartbreaking and visceral honesty, carrying itself in a way that no “grieving” album has ever touched before. A Crow Looked At Me is an extremely powerful and laborious album on both sides of the transaction, but to understand its impact, we must first start at the other end of the spectrum with The Sunset Tree.

An album like The Sunset Tree creates a certain cognitive dissonance in its presentation. The subject matter doesn’t match up with the often upbeat instrumentals, sometimes reaching near-jubilance on songs like “Dance Music” and “This Year”. This is because the album hits on a certain emotion to a level that most confessional albums don’t reach: catharsis. Written and recorded years after John Darnielle’s tumultuous childhood with his abusive step-father in California, this album serves as a releasing of ghosts long held dormant in the vast and spacious rooms in the house of memory. The Sunset Tree is a retelling of tragic youth in the key of hope, because Darnielle lived to tell the tale. The immediacy of the events is gone, so rather than soak the music in grief, Darnielle opts to revisit these events in his new form to show himself and others that there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

In a similar vein, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is a trek through a turbulent past, but instead the focus is more on the connection between past and present instead of just retelling the history. The album was inspired by the death of Stevens’ mother in 2012. His relationship with his mother was complex, as she had abandoned their family when Stevens was an infant, and their connection beyond that was complicated by her schizophrenia and depression. Because of this strenuous condition with his past, the album exists in a sort of liminal space, where the audience is taken from hazy pictures of Stevens’ childhood to his grief stricken present, where he deals with the long-standing effects of his upbringing. Despite all of this gloom, Carrie & Lowell is foundationally the same as The Sunset Tree; it’s as much a healing album as it is a grieving album. Similar to Stevens, Darnielle’s abusive parental figure died shortly before the release of the album, bringing hordes of complicated and long-dormant emotions to the forefront, which the artists sort through and decipher in front of our very ears. The biggest difference between the two is primarily stylistic, with Carrie & Lowell exchanging the jubilance for more downtrodden and melancholy instrumentals, sinking to it’s furthest depths on suicide-laden “The Only Thing”.

These two albums provide very different surface level experiences for the listener while arriving at the same destination conceptually. With one’s fiery nostalgia and the other’s quiet remembrance, they both reach similar levels of healing for the performer and possibly the consumer as well. Their subjects are touchy and often uncomfortable to hear, but they never reach a point of inaccessibility where a listener may deem the songs too much to handle because, in essence, you feel the purge of emotions along with the writers, and you yourself reach closure because the artists have given themselves up to you as an act of closure for themselves. Then, beyond it all, lies A Crow Looked At Me.

Mount Eerie’s latest comes along and creates something altogether new and difficult to reason with. In expounding on the aftermath following the death of his wife Genevieve, Phil Elverum provides full, unflinching disclosure to the audience in a way that, unlike the previous two albums, doesn’t feel cathartic, let alone entirely relatable for anyone but himself. This closeness is disquieting; it feels invasive. As Elverum sings about breaking down in grocery stores or discussing his wife’s death with their daughter, the picture is not one of pulling painful memories out of the past because it is the immediate, recorded merely months after her death to be exact.

Through this heartbreaking intimacy, A Crow Looked At Me explores new territory in the realm of the musician/listener experience. The album, while a piece of music, is hardly about the actual qualities of the arrangements or the sounds of the instruments. These elements just serve as a backdrop for what’s essentially several spoken word pieces, where Elverum unloads his raw and unfiltered into a bare melodic structure. And so, as a listener, what do you think? What is our role in this scenario? Are we supposed to enjoy it, relate to it, or even hear it in general? Unlike The Sunset Tree or Carrie & Lowell where the audience emotions trail alongside the artists in peaks and valleys, A Crow Looked At Me exists separately in its own, untouchable void. It doesn’t care if you like it and it doesn’t expect you to stick around and wade with the sadness with Elverum, because it’s not for you. Elverum, a musician to the smallest fiber of his being, grieved in the way that he knew how. Anything beyond that is inessential to the work. This album isn’t music, it’s a photograph; a moment preserved in time, forever existing in the moment of its creation.

Asia Daggs

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