Ever since P.W. Elverum evolved the Microphones into Mount Eerie with the cosmogonical opera Mount Eerie, his world has gotten smaller and more mundane. He’s gone from talking about the universe (Mount Eerie) to the elements (Wind’s Poem) to his hometown/muse of Anacortes, Washington (the spectacular Clear Moon). Sauna, his new album, opens in a sauna. But the way Elverum sings about it, you’d think it was the most profound thing ever.
Mount Eerie albums tend to open with lengthy trials-by-fire that ensure you fully commit to the album. Mount Eerie opened with ten minutes of drums, his recent Ocean Roar with ten minutes of organs. Sauna‘s title track and opener is ten minutes of ambient drone with sparse vocals, and it distinguishes itself by actually being more accessible than the music that ensues. It’s easier to sink into than anything Elverum’s ever made, save some of the softer parts of Clear Moon.
After “Sauna,” the music becomes rockier, in terms of both rock music and being jagged and impenetrable. Elverum switches between metal (“Boat”), indie rock (“Turmoil”), folk (“Dragon,” “Pumpkin”), and quasi-Steve Reich arpeggios that are probably just the product of laziness (“[something]”). Some of these tracks are clunkier than others, but hearing them all together makes for an experience not unlike the ultimate greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts record, The White Album.
The settings and actions are surprisingly ordinary. Elverum drinks coffee, stares at garbage on the ground, lounges in an airport and reads a ton of books. On “Youth,” he explicitly sets the events of the album in 2014, nullifying the “ancient” descriptor often applied to his music. But he’s still perpetually surrounded by the beyond, and it’s during the moments when the listener is made aware of this that Sauna becomes most poignant.
“Dragon” epitomizes this. Elverum takes the backseat on this one, giving up the mic to singers Allyson Foster and Ashley Eriksson. Their voices are plaintive and ghostly together, and the lyrics are almost aggressively evocative. I found the line “a tractor idling two blocks away” particularly arresting. The distance gives the line its power; this mundane object is still part of a vast, unknowable universe. Does Elverum walk towards the tractor? We’ll never know. I doubt it.
On “Pumpkin,” Elverum is fascinated by a pumpkin he finds on the beach, split open by the sea against the rocks. There’s a real tenderness in the way he says “orange,” and it’s evident he’s developed a deep love for the thing by the song’s end. The pumpkin becomes at once a cute curiosity and a reminder of the power of nature. He walks home, past bulldozers at dusk, universes forming in his head. The lyrics aren’t poetry, but they scan like it.
It’s these moments that allow the album to transcend its inconsistency. Even Elverum’s failures are interesting, and the gems are distributed equally enough that there isn’t one part of the album that really drags. I’d say this album could be shorter, but Sauna‘s imperfections give it a rough-hewn quality that meshes perfectly with Elverum’s rugged universe. I guess this makes Elverum infallible. If so, great, because if an album like Sauna comes into my life every few years, I’m set.
Listen to the track “Turmoil” off Mount Eerie’s Sauna below.