I did not know what I would hear when I put on this album, I only knew it was classified as indie folk. Part of me suggests that you listen to it as I did, in the car at night, driving down a familiar road for the better part of an hour with nothing else to distract you, having no idea what you are about to listen to. Or you could sit down for 40 minutes with this album and listen to it as if you were reading a book, because it really is all about the story with this one. But seriously, listen to it.
I struggled for a while thinking of the best way to do this review. I think I will go through my thought process with the first song. I was driving home from work at night and I had my headphones plugged into my cellphone, the full album playing on YouTube. Out of the corner of my eye I could see some text on the screen but there was no sound playing yet. Just before reaching over to make sure I had started the video a clean electric guitar plays a shimmering chord and Phil Elverum’s soft voice sings “Death is real” matter-of-factly. He half sings about walking into an empty room where whoever he is singing about used to live and how he falls apart physically and emotionally standing in that room. And then Phil talks about how this person still gets mail sent to them and how a package came that day. It was a backpack for their one and a half year old daughter. He’s singing about his dead wife. She had ordered a backpack for their daughter before she died, knowing that she would be gone by the time it got there and before she would ever get to see her daughter wear it to school. And then I realize that Phil is writing and singing these songs days after his wife had died. And Phil sounds young. He doesn’t sound past 30. And then I think about my own young wife who I’ve only been married to for two years. And then I cry in my car.
I go back to the start of the video and see that the beginning was a memorial to Phil’s wife, Geneviève Castrée Elverum who was 35 when she died from cancer on July 9, 2016. And I listen to the whole damn album that night and cry a few more times, and when I’m not crying I feel this lump in my throat like I’m choking.
The instruments on this album are sparse and subdued so you have nowhere to hide from Phil’s voice as he tells you about his grief, taking you painstakingly from one week, to one month, to three months after she died, and then back to memories when she still lived. But no matter what point in his life he is talking about, it’s always centered around that date, July 9, 2016. I almost felt sick listening to Phil mourn, like it was something I shouldn’t be hearing, something too personal.
Phil tells of taking his wife’s ashes to a spot where they had wanted to build a house eventually, he tries to remember if she liked Canadian geese or foxgloves because they are both abundant around the area, but as he comments “you always did my remembering for me”. He pours the ashes onto a chair he brought from home, placing it so maybe she can see the sunset even though to him her ashes don’t represent her. She is truly gone from the world. The parts that hurt the most though, are when Phil is talking of the mundane things he is now missing. It’s difficult not hearing his wife singing anymore or squeaking in a rocking chair. The absence of her presence is something he still is not used to.
It’s heartbreaking to hear him talk about finally having the courage to clean out her room, as if he is finally saying goodbye to her by getting rid of her clothes and cleaning out the trash in the bedroom she spent her last days in. Even letting a fly out the window from that room is like giving a piece of her away. Making all of this worse is their young daughter, who doesn’t seem to understand what has exactly happened. She asks Phil at one point if her mom swims where she is, and he says “Yes, she does, and that’s probably all she does now”.
I think of my own wife as half of me, and I’ll admit to considering what it would be like if she did pass away before me and at a young age. While I had wondered what it might be like, Phil knows, and that pain is not something I would ever want to experience. To not have her voice around me or her warmth next to me at night, to only have pictures left of her, to slowly forget her entirely… that is hell. I can feel just a fraction of the pain Phil has, resigned to knowing he must live on in a world without his other half.
I have listened to this album three times now for this review. I don’t know if I can ever listen to it again. If you have somebody in your life that you love and feel you could not live without, if nothing else this will make you appreciate them more. I know after I came home that night, I looked at my wife and noticed the tone of her voice more, the little things in her facial expressions, and I tried to keep hold of them inside a little more than usual.