A Crow Looked at Me cover art (hint: read the poem!).
Music is the eighth wonder of this world; it exists by the masses, for the masses, and, most uniquely, it exists within each individual in a truly authentic way. The skilled musician creates both for himself and for others, leaving the same songs with uncountably many and equally important interpretations and sentiments. We know too well the result of making music with the sole intention of inauthentically relating to the masses; thinly-veiled generalizations from groups like The Chainsmokers and Twenty One Pilots have managed to give the audience little room to imagine while also giving them nothing real for them to grab. When musicians are able to produce art from a genuine place within, their work becomes imbued with emotional and intellectual context. But what happens when music becomes too esoteric? Or, perhaps more pertinently, can music ever even be too esoteric? Recent releases from the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, and Phil Elverum have pushed the boundaries of how esoteric music can be while still engaging the listener.
In Bon Iver’s latest album, 22, A Million, the semi-eremitic mountain man ponders the troubling feat of retaining a strong sense of individuality while still identifying as part of a larger society. He uses numerology, the study of the unique characteristics of numbers, throughout the album to do so. The number ‘22’ is himself; he sees his essence as a duality between needing to serve himself and wanting to serve his fans, the ‘Million.’ The music is ethereal almost to the point of fragility: as if it may stop and fall apart at any minute. These aspects develop an esotericism which implies a desire on Bon Iver’s part to become more intimate with his listeners. This speaks volumes to his perception of humanity, and it is perfectly paradoxical: we are beautiful in our simplicity, but simplicity leaves us weak. In our weakness we must attach ourselves to something greater than ourselves, whether it be God or society. However such an attachment is toxic to our ability to perceive ourselves as individuals with efficacy.
In Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens is also able to develop such esotericism through painfully personal details: the album was made for his recently deceased mother, with whom he had a very turbulent relationship. In this case, the listener is taken to a faraway place where he or she is able to explore the inner-mechanisms of sorrow and grief. Again, in this work the instrumentation is very sparse, as if to imply that the lyrics are more important. The music serves as the carrier of his emotions and a means by which he may allow the listener into his mind; he makes such a unique relationship into something we can all understand.
The most interesting (and the most recent) case is that of Phil Elverum. Formerly the prolific frontman of the universally acclaimed lo-fi band The Microphones, Elverum is now frontman of the amorphous group Mount Eerie, a father, and unfortunately now also a widower; on July 9, 2016, recent mother Geneviève Castrée succumbed to pancreatic cancer and passed in her own bed and in the arms of her husband. On March 24th, Phil released A Crow Looked at Me under the name Mount Eerie, and the whole album revolves around the death of Geneviève. All the music was written and performed in the room in which she died using mostly the instruments she owned. The lyrics read like a widower’s diary written over many teary-eyed candle-lit nights, heavily emphasizing raw emotional power over poetic expression. The acoustics are equally raw, yielding forty minutes of unadulterated emotional bloodletting.
To listen to A Crow Looked at Me legitimately feels like an invasion of privacy: as if the music was stolen from somewhere under the bed in Phil’s home in Anacortes, Washington. But even this album, which may be the most personal and “non-relatable” music in recent history, is able to strike chord after chord with anyone who listens. Phil’s introspective bluntness could probably make a brick wall cry, or at least give it a new perspective on life: “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about, back before I knew my way around these hospitals. I would like to forget and go back to imagining,”; “The feeling of being in the mountains is a dream of self-negation,”; “These photographs we have of you are slowly replacing the subtle familiar memory of what it’s like to know you’re in the other room.”
These artists have shown that esotericism, if matched by emotional charge and confidence, can never be in excess. However, such love for this music raises new questions: Is it okay to listen to this music? Is it sadistic? Is it an invasion of privacy? Or is it beautiful? We must ask ourselves: are these artists being demeaned to sob-stories, or are they being appreciated for both their artistic merit and their braveness to make their stories public?