Artist: Mount Eerie
Release Date: February 3, 2015 (P.W. Elverum and Sun)
Buzz Factor: 4.5/5.0
In the press-release for Sauna, Phil Elverum—the man behind Mount Eerie and the Microphones—stated that the album’s themes center on “vikings and zen and real life.” As cryptic as this description was upon its disclosure, nothing less could be expected from an artist whose last album, Pre-human Ideas, was essentially a rehash of 2012’s Clear Moon (this time more dense with auto-tune and other synthetic noise). It’s typical of Elverum to act in such a way, sometimes humorous, often enigmatic, but always deliberate. Sauna is exactly the non sequitur Elverum proposed: disjointed, chaotic, and absolutely beautiful.
Sauna feels as if it’s a meditative journey through Elverum’s memories, invoking familiar sounds and styles from albums past. Warm lo-fi (“Turmoil”) from It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water; contemplative folk (“Dragon”) from Dawn; pounding black metal (“Boat”) from Wind’s Poem. Most commonly however, Elverum forms amalgamations of these styles to achieve a sound distinctly unique from, yet reminiscent of, his back catalogue (“Planets,” “Pumpkin,” “Spring,” “Youth”). As such, Sauna is often at odds with itself, juxtaposing: short with long, harsh with soft, warm with cold. Even with the constant oscillations between such opposing elements, the album flows seamlessly—especially for a double LP.
On album standout, “Dragon,” Ashley Eriksson and Allyson Foster pick up much of the vocal duties, skillfully harmonizing throughout the song’s three minute duration. Although his voice is rarely heard, Elverum’s presence is undoubtedly felt through the gentle plucking of guitar layered underneath the sounds of outdoor ambiance. When each of these elements are working in tandem they create an image of the Pacific Northwest—more specifically Anacortes, Washington—that allows the listener to gain a better insight into Elverum’s frame of reference.
Another standout, “Pumpkin,” begins with a triumphant sway that reintroduces a distorted warmth largely absent in Elverum’s music since the Microphones. The only distinct difference heard between then and now is in the song’s production clarity—Elverum has grown into his role as a producer and is able to preserve his lo-fi sentiment in the hi-fi gloss becoming ever more present in each of his subsequent releases. After the initial saunter, “Pumpkin” then recedes into a Dawn-like simplicity, centered on classical guitar and soft, reflective vocals. Even at this most basic level, Elverum captivates the listener with his trusting vulnerability.
Sauna is just as unconventional as Elverum had promised, but this isn’t a flaw, it’s the album’s major strength; the sharp contrasts are what make the album such a full-bodied experience that keeps the listener’s interest in the hour it rightfully demands. Although perhaps not Elverum’s best, Sauna is most definitely Mount Eerie’s finest yet.