Music Reviews

Mount Eerie Sauna

(P.W. Elverum & Sun) Rating - 8/10

Some musicians are landscape artists, others specialize in portraits, but it’s rare that an artist excels in both. The artistic eye, unfortunately, usually tends to be either near-sighted or far-sighted, and it’s up to that artist to refine that focus as much as possible. But every once in a while, an artist comes along who’s gifted with a creative lens that can focus on the beauty of both a dramatic mountain range and the look of pain in one’s eyes. A Rembrandt can, in fact, be a Monet or Turner as well, and some can even embody both simultaneously.

Phil Elverum is such an artist. From his diminutive lo-fi folk days as The Microphones to his lush world-building as Mount Eerie, Elverum has always built vivid, impressionistic scenes of the natural world while lending just as much focus to the solitary, lonely flesh-and-blood individual wandering through it. You could pick up any product with Elverum’s name on it and get a good sense of what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t imply that you’ll always get the same experience with each release. On classics like It Was Hot, We Stayed In the Water and the unimpeachable The Glow, Pt. 2, Elverum’s approach felt significantly more zoomed in and direct, his soft-spoken voice and creaky guitar often taking center stage while tape-hiss and other eccentric embellishments crafted the icy winter air which gave his songs their elemental force. Elsewhere, Elverum becomes a conjurer of storms and a spectre of the wilderness, building lush landscapes of forests, mountains, and rotted cabins, all complete with their own climate and weather patterns as his voice echoes through them like a breeze. In these instances, the world becomes the subject and Elverum is the force surrounding it.

So judging by its title alone, it’s pretty obvious which sect Sauna, the latest double LP in Elverum’s Mount Eerie lineage, will likely reside in, and in pretty much every respect, it does. Following a banner 2012 for Elverum, wherein he released two exceptional-yet-opposing albums: the calm, contemplative Clear Moon and the roaring, disorienting Ocean Roar, it could have been anyone’s guess where the man would take his next proper album, as that year proved him to be in great creative shape for just about anything. As it turns out, Sauna presents itself as a unique amalgamation of each release’s strengths, embodying the tranquil, hearth-warm sonic pallet of Clear Moon while stretching and expanding these sounds into the endless ether akin to Ocean Roar.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s colossal opening gasp. Consisting of precisely 10 minutes of a droning, cascading organ hum, the cracking of burning wood, and guitar melodies so subtle you’ll probably miss them the first time around, Sauna’s title track is, musically, almost pure vapor and steam, its atmospheric density building to such sweltering levels you can almost feel beads of sweat forming on your brow by the track’s end. It’s so purely elemental that it could nearly pass for an ambient field recording, but in true Mount Eerie fashion, Elverum, along with singers Allyson Foster and Ashley Eriksson, keep the warm touch of humanity close by, acting as a serene guiding voice through the thick fog of Elverum’s compositions. “If life was a small fire, I’d carry it around,” Elverum coos near the tracks end, the small but enduring torch sitting at a long journey’s end.

The crushing, almost melody-less ambience of Sauna might suggest that this is the album where Elverum goes fully native on us, with Elverum completely disappearing into the ether of the solitary natural world which has always been his fascination. However, Sauna not only proves itself to be one of Elverum’s most personal and intimate releases, it’s also one of his most artistically inspired as well. All throughout Sauna, we see Elverum changing up styles and implementing varied instrumentation for some new textural and sonic surprises we don’t always hear from the guy. Distant sax hums bring an added airiness to Turmoil, glockenspiels and plucked violin strings merrily dance through (something) and Books, respectively, and cheery woodwinds, straight from the book of Sufjan, brighten the distortion-laden corners of This.

Still, many of Sauna’s strongest moments result from Elverum sticking to what he knows best, as well as being the most closely akin to his last two albums. The richly melodic yet devastatingly lonesome Emptiness, for instance, would fit beautifully amongst Clear Moon’s solemn beauty, while the ferocious Boat could easily pass for a piece of Ocean Roar left on the cutting room floor, yet both are easily two of Sauna’s strongest standouts, each perfectly underlying Elverum’s strengths in two starkly opposing ways. But on Spring, the album’s other epic at an even more imposing 13 minutes, Elverum brings all of his talents of beauty and ugliness together for something truly special. Though opening the track with the thick, blackened smoke of ringing chimes and curdled, crusted guitars, Elverum & co. unleash a striking choir to the heavens, ringing in radiant, crescendoing organs to wash away the darkens and bathe the landscape in reassuring light. It’s a prime example of not only how unpredictable the climates in Elverum’s environments can be, but how the singer-songwriter has always been able to maintain such a precise and graceful control over how he lets his storms rage on or let sunlight burst forth.

On Planets, Elverum opens with a peculiar line: “As long as I am drawing breath, the world still exists / But when I die, everything will vanish.”  It’s as if the singer’s deliberately throwing a wrench into any arguments that his music is all just mountains and rivers and forests completely removed from the self. If anything, Sauna demonstrates a perception of the world rarely seen in most artists; that maybe we as humans don’t just exist in the natural world but the natural world exists in our perceptions and emotions and ambitions – that the relationship between the two is symbiotic. It suggests that maybe all landscapes and portraits do in fact come from the same place, and all it takes is a unique perception of the world to unlock it. It’s definitely plausible…how else would an album like Sauna come to exist?