Phil Elverum is a man seemingly fascinated by the world at large, constantly evolving through lyricism and sound as the planet decays around him. What was once thought to be nature romanticism has become something fuller, more encompassing of Elverum’s distinct view of the world. His output has been propelled by a passion for language and musicianship, with his seventh full-length album as Mount Eerie representing yet another creative peak in a career full of highlights. Sauna sounds like the result of a man analysing himself and his body of work, allowing himself to create something that feels like a grandiose epilogue in a story that still has a few chapters left.
He’s never really been known for being direct, but that’s exactly what his latest is. His longest release under the Mount Eerie name yet, Sauna still manages to make good use of its 55-minute running time by shaking things up considerably track by track. Immediacy is occasionally dropped in favour of showing off via exquisite atmospherics, but Sauna represents the very best of Elverum’s accessibility and impenetrability in equal measure.
Everything that Elverum has shown a keen interest in shows up in some form here, but it’s all concentrated into something a little more to the point. It makes for a captivating listen that could pass as a retrospective created with original content.
It’s never as consistent as The Glow Pt.2 or as tar-black as Wind’s Poem, but it manages to meld elements from each of his releases in some intuitive ways. Take ‘Dragon’ for example: what could’ve been just another track from the all-acoustic Lost Wisdom is suddenly moved into a different direction as gusts of wind and airplanes flying overhead get lost in the mix – it’s a surreal effect that only Elverum could pull off.
Nothing about this record seems like a statement, even if it does say a lot about Elverum as an artist. There’s no stagnation, even when the record resorts to lengthy drones. Sauna even begins with a lengthy organ-based track that’s only punctuated by Elverum’s soft vocals and a reverberating gong – there’s no words or even melody for a full three minutes. Whilst a good handful of the songs take their time, a lot of the tracks on the album also opt for a faster, punk-like approach that recalls some of the shorter tracks from The Microphones’ early output. These sit side by side wonderfully with the lengthier excursions in sound, standing just as strong and fleshed out as anything else the album has to offer.
Sauna somehow makes the universe feel intensely personal, with a dreamlike quality that recalls his best releases without ever regurgitating them verbatim. Nowhere is this more evident than on the 13-minute long ‘Spring’, which could sit comfortably atop the list of the best things he’s ever done. In fact, the whole record could – it acts as a beautiful explanation of what makes his music so wonderfully unique. Every moment is dazzling in its own right, capturing those fleeting glimpses of what can make life so colourful and compressing all of those moments down into 50 ostentatious minutes.