opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
As the Microphones and as Mount Eerie, from the lo-fi production values to the wiry vocals, Phil Elverum’s music always carries an air of objectivity, its detached nature revealing a calm, disciplined mind. Now twenty years in, Elverum’s latest LP as Mount Eerie is something of a known quantity: A wise and wizened record with a massive gravitational pull, its inner peace and outer turmoil inseparable components of its design. Sauna is as much about texture as songcraft, teeming with breathless organs, spiky drones, bleak vocals and charred acoustic chord progressions. Anyone familiar with Mount Eerie’s pair of 2012 LPs, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, or with Elverum’s overall M.O., probably has a good idea of what to expect from Sauna.
Ironically enough, Sauna is a chilly record. But, fittingly, listening to it is like posting up in a sweat lodge. The stark, bleak artwork that comes with the LPs is saturated with pastel and faded tones, a vivid representation of the record’s overall mood. Sentient and almost introspective to a fault, Sauna is rife with solipsism from its opening moments, with a simmering urge to shake off this mortal coil. “As long as I am drawing breath the world still exists/But when I die everything will vanish,” Elverum murmurs on the misshapen, melancholy “Planets.”
It’s said you die twice, the moment when you stop breathing, and the moment when the last person who knew you stops breathing. Sauna taps into and exploits this premise, its dilated structure allowing Elverum to dispense his meditations in slow, deliberate fashion. The wordless stretches act as interstitial space, binding his thoughts together, heightening the contrast between mundane (“I make a coffee while looking out the window/And notice than I can’t remember when or if I woke up”) and picturesque (“My life is a small fire I carry around/Coming into a clearing/Glowing coals on the wet ground”). Allyson Foster and Ashley Eriksson contribute vocals, and both convey haunting, spectral qualities that foil Elverum’s unpolished singing style.
A double album, Sauna runs longer than its immediate predecessors by a sizeable margin, anchored by a pair of tracks that punch out at ten minutes plus. The first, the title track, is both an ambient noise piece and a portent. As Elverum sings “I don’t think the world exists/Only this room in the snow,” he essentially lays the groundwork for everything to come. The second mammoth track, “Spring”, ushers in the album’s weedier second half. Remove them from the equation, and Sauna is just 32 minutes. To its detriment, a handful of the shorter tracks end up being the album’s strongest, namely the memorable arrangements found on “Planets”, “Dragon”, and “Books”. The clangorous black metal of “Boats”, which recalls Celestia or even Yo La Tengo at their absolute noisiest, is stirring as well.
Although Sauna’smakeup is similar to its two predecessors, it lacks their dynamism. The record’spacing points to a 40-minute piece with too much tacked on, rather than a work overrun with ideas judiciously cut down to just under an hour. Not that there’s much to skip over, but the peaks are spaced too far apart to carry the impact they could. The about-faces make for an engaging, challenging listen, but by the end it all seems a bit vague. B-