Release Date: Feb 3, 2015
Record label: P.W. Elverum & Sun Ltd.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. When trying to figure out Phil Elverum, you wind up with a bunch of contradictions. It seems like he wants nobody to know much about him, yet at the same time he's willing to bear all in his music. His music is deadly serious, yet on Twitter and elsewhere online he has no trouble cracking jokes.
Here Phil Elverum is again, two and a half years after we left him on Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, and he's still, essentially, in the same spot. As he put it on Clear Moon's "Through the Trees Pt. 2": "I go on describing this place, and the way it feels to live and die." The line was a clear mission statement, and the "go on" in this formulation seems as important as the "describing".
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.
Enjoyable as saunas are, their heat can be at once relieving and pressing. Within each song, if not in every moment, Sauna has its own kind of physical duality. Late in 2012, after the release of Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, Mount Eerie released a 7” where each side had all of the songs from one album playing simultaneously. The concept worked in a peculiar way, as the ‘songs’ captured something akin to the aura of their respective album.
Previous albums by Phil Elverum, the lo-fi mastermind behind both Mount Eerie and its predecessor project the Microphones, are titled after more natural phenomena, including Little Bird Flies into a Big Black Cloud, Dawn and Ocean Roar. Even though his latest, Sauna, takes its name and cavernous, warm and disorienting vibe from a manmade contraption, it still finds Elverum drawing inspiration from the world around him set to a blend of drone, folk and rock. The album is structured around two behemoth tracks — the title track and "Spring," clocking in at 10 minutes or longer each — but it's the shorter tracks where the album is at its most engaging.
When you enter a sauna for the first time, it appears to be a mirage. The swirling wisps of steam cloud the room and turn milky white when light from the open door hits them, creating a momentary claustrophobia. There is no air. There’s only thick, wet steam, equal parts fresh water and communal sweat.
All of Phil Elverum's Mount Eerie albums are massive and mysterious, but none more so than Sauna. His first new music since 2012's diptych of Ocean Roar and Clear Moon, Elverum trades the former's powerful tides, the latter's delicate reflections, and the alien vulnerability of the companion piece Pre-Human Ideas for a more holistic approach. Possibly even more meditative than its predecessors, on Sauna Elverum explores the transformation of fire, wood, water, and the self, literally and figuratively.
Phil Elverum just can't stop recording music and his latest album as Mount Eerie, Sauna, is proof we should be thankful for that. He's been doing indie folk since before it was even a thing. He's of the same graduating class as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Jeff Mangum, Songs: Ohia, and Sun Kil Moon. That's to say he's been doing this longer than Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine, and so forth but still manages to sound just as fresh as any of them.
Phil Elverum (The Microphones/Mount Eerie) has been releasing music for nearly 20 years. The span alone suggests a degree of commitment to production that is as admirable as it is rare. Distilled to their charitable moments within Elverum’s narrative, his output (as albums, experiments, and miscellany) suggests a movement toward self-reflection and mystical self-effacement, which is indicative of a truly engaged life.
We devour music at such a feverish pace that, more and more, great collections of songs fall through the cracks. In the case of the past six weeks, we uncovered such missed gems as Sacred Bones’ idea of body music and Phil Elverum’s take on Mark Kozelek’s confessional style. Meanwhile, a drill rapper holds her own, a folk-rock conscientious objector ages gracefully, and a Southern legend emerges triumphantly from a murder trial and the media circus surrounding.
Toward the end of last year, Phil Elverum published an essay to his blog entitled “life/project explanation”, and frankly it’s as good an introduction to his works, both as The Microphones and as Mount Eerie, as you’re ever likely to find. Elverum’s music – and his writing, and poetry, and photography – goes beyond the clichés of “personal” or “confessional” artistry; it is a fully fledged aesthetic and ontological exploration, a continuous phenomenological examination of what it means to be alive, what it means to be in the world, what it is, simply, to be Phil Elverum. In the aforementioned essay, he explains why his latest album is titled Sauna, writing that “like a sauna, music can be an almost mystical short-circuiting of our assumptions that we self-inflict in order to see the world with fresh eyes, to clear away the gunk, both mentally and physically.
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.