From beginning to end, Sauna reads its map upside down, but finds the destination all the same.
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. The hum of “Clear Moon” was warmer, while “Ocean Roar” was stormier. Sauna can be disorienting at times, too, but, more to the point, it has a peculiar way of making you feel like you're listening to two overlapping albums that follow perpendicular impulses.
What is very loud but also very quiet? Opener “Sauna” feels intended to find an answer to such a riddle. Over its ten minutes -- half of which is not much more than a sustained organ note and the crackling sound of, yes, a sauna -- the song isn’t so much ‘quiet-loud’ (though it does that, too) as it is both at the same time. The dark feedback storm that lashes against the quiet inside (“I don’t think the world still exists / Only this room in the snow / And the light from the coals”) for eight minutes finally swells and hovers overhead. The humid calm keeps indoors, with the gentle overlapping voices of Phil Elverum and Allyson Foster (also of Hungry Cloud Darkening) offering one another respite from outside forces that threaten to overwhelm.
It is a great piece of scene-setting, but not quite indicative of a banya rock opera to follow. It is, however, the first of a dozen unseen left turns, and if Sauna were to be a concept album, the premise would be confounding expectations. When “Turmoil” begins to build, it also begins to fade away, making good on the fleeting presence promised in its initial image, “In the morning it feels like coming in to a clearing / And the disorientation lingers only for a breath.” “Dragon” does not itself roar, but whispers with delicate layers of vocals and grazed nylon strings, with what sounds like an airplane passing overhead in the middle serving as the titular flying monster. “Emptiness” is a dense braid of organ, cymbals, and Elverum’s winding soliloquy about “More emptiness again / And more, and more.” “Boat” and “Planets” are brief when they seem to beg for more time to unfold, perhaps making room for the multi-part anti-prog culmination of “Spring”. From beginning to end, song by song, Sauna reads its map upside down, but reaches its destination all the same.
Before Sauna, the symbiotic 2012 duo of Clear Moon and Ocean Roar was a culmination of long-building themes in Phil Elverum’s oeuvre. Natural forces have come in to focus on, and provided the titles for, the last three Mount Eerie records: wind, moon, ocean. These three things have been name-dropped in numerous Elverum songs even since he began recording under his previous nom de plume, the Microphones. A probably incomplete accounting finds the moon rising seven times, and the ocean (including waves and water) coming up at least eight. If you count the air and wind together, that would be a minimum of nine appearances. (If you’re wondering where the sun fits in to all of this, it is his business partner: P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)
It has been suggested that Elverum’s music is about a sense of place, and that is probably still the place to start. Forests may keep appearing on Mount Eerie album sleeves, but there’s more going on than just ‘tree gaze’. The description on the P.W. Elverum & Sun website explains that “’Vikings and zen and real life’ are the reference points” for the new album, but nature remains central. At many times, Sauna is like a journal of lonely walks in the woods, the reveries to be found in the absence of other people replacing the dramas of their presence. Even when the journeys are more mundane -- as in “Pumpkin”, where he walks into town to visit the bookstore, recounting, “And every ordinary moment / Looking at trash on the ground” -- Elverum finds the illumination of experience among the “wet rocks and dark sand”. Inverted, reordered, even exploded; underneath the album’s conscious sonic readjustments, the heart of Mount Eerie beats on.