The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Phil Elverum's unique album about loss and Mary Gauthier's 'Rifles and Rosary Beads.'
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The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post ; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked at Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.) It's essential and not all that difficult to distinguish the persona who sings the song from the person who created both the song and the persona. And then there's this, which begins with a very biographical version of gently depressive Puget Sounder Phil Elverum shakily observing: "Death is real / Someone's there and then they're not / and it's not for singing about / It's not for making into art." The someone is Elverum's wife of 13 years, ghosted away from her sickroom by cancer exactly a week before the song was recorded. It's so spare and bleak that it took me a lot longer than a week to notice that Elverum had laid a forthrightly bassy thrum underneath his finger-brushed acoustic guitar, arting death up after all. But what choice did he have if he hoped to expiate the grief that consumed him? And given that, what can it mean when he ends the same song: "I don't want to learn anything from this. I love you." Such autobiographical conundrums are one of this album's achievements whether Elverum is in control of them or not. But they're obliterated by the immediacy and detail of his loss, of his living yet inexorably transmuting love for his dead wife, of their living baby daughter, of the modest domestic arrangements he can hardly bear to recall. Brutal to listen to for all its quiet. Like nothing I've ever heard. A
Mary Gauthier: Rifles and Rosary Beads (In the Black) The gritty recovering alcoholic wrote these 11 grave, felt, angry, deliberate songs with service members, veterans, and spouses via a Nashville project called SongwritingWith:Soldiers. But examine the list of collaborators and see why it had better be "members," not "men"—five of the eight soldiers and all of the spouses are women, so that women alone write seven tracks. There's "Brothers": "I was just like you when the bullets flew / I had your back you had mine too / Brothers in arms your sisters covered you / Don't that make us your brothers too?" There's also "Iraq," in which a mechanic with grease under her nails finds herself compelled to fend off male soldiers who are supposed to be on her side. On the other hand, one of the men writes "It's Her Love" for his wife: "When I'm broken and I push her away / She fights her way back she's with me to stay." But mostly what's stressed is respect for common service—documenting battle's brutal grind, celebrating the survivals it's been all of the cowriters' lifework to fight for one way or another, citing the many kinds of injury the combatants came home with, remembering their dead as guardian angels. Without moralizing more than a crack, all of these writers honor shared struggle without papering over how hard that can be: "They say no man's left behind but that ain't true / They hate it that they need us but they do." The record flinches sometime—wouldn't you? But it refuses to break. A MINUS
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