Phil Elverum is the James Joyce of Anacortes, Washington. Although any one of his works may not equate to the singular force of Ulysses, his cohesive and monolithic body of work as a whole constitutes one of American music’s most valuable artifacts. Like Joyce, Elverum has tapped into both the ambling conscious mind and the simmering subconscious along with visceral surrounding environments to render majestic art. Depicting all three in ever-deepening increments, Elverum gives listeners impressively developed glimpses at the internal and external worlds he occupies.
Speaking generally, Elverum’s work through his projects The Microphones and Mount Eerie are minimalistic and focused yet infinitely complex, layered, and challenging as they sprawl out to form richly detailed landscapes. This remains so on Sauna, his most recent effort, released this week on his own P.W. Elverum and Sun label. These eleven songs all bear a single word as a title, further evidencing Mount Eerie’s dichotomous inclusion of simplicity and complexity; beneath these solitary words lie complicated treatments—sonic manifestations like small, deep lakes. The album continues Elverum’s exploration of place, the self, and the relationship between the two, but this collection of songs seeks more disparate approaches and sounds than found on his most recent LPs, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar.
On the whole, Sauna, like most of Elverum’s work to date, includes surprising musical shifts and experiments with aural texture. Its songs, mostly meditated and restrained, incorporate low, buzzing bass and embrace Mount Eerie’s trend of ominous tones and black metal sensibilities. The title-track announces the album’s onset and draws the listener in with sound samples of a crackling fire and deep breathing. “Out past beyond the field / inside the birches / under rising steam: a small room,” Elverum sings; he orients the listener in space, takes the listener to the place where he exists. The fire burns, water runs over the hot stones, and steam fills the air slowly; the music rises gradually as well—steadily expanding to an imposing force, like great heat. This is a cleansing process.
Like “Sauna,” songs “Dragon” and “Pumpkin” seek to sustain sounds over spacious, floating arrangements. Female vocals from Allyson Foster, Ashley Eriksson, or both provide the backbone of “Dragon,” which samples jet sounds to give life to the Dragon’s roar. Electronic Attack Squadron 129, the U.S. Navy’s only training ground for both EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler aircraft, is stationed on Whidbey Island, the neighbor to Phil Elverum’s home island of Fidalgo. The pilots of this fleet of jets operate under the moniker Vikings. Inducing much local controversy, the citizens of the San Juan Islands experience a frequent roaring in the sky as unseen jets perform test flights, obstructed by the region’s low lying fog and frequently gray skies—dragons snoring as they slumber in a hidden cave high up on some hill.
The pumpkin half Elverum observes on “Pumpkin” contrasts the bright orange fruit’s flesh with the cold gray rocks of the land’s edge. In these tiny details, Elverum captures the holistic aesthetic of life on Fidalgo Island, and these colors, textures, and even the sound of syllables within the lyrics underscore the connection between the physical world and musical sensibilities. “Emptiness” and “This” explore abstract concepts of existence and inexistence as they both wander through austere chords and augmented tones. The incredible video-game-like sounds near the beginning of closer “Youth” constitute the song’s initial attraction, but this song, too, features masterful arrangement of delicate acoustic guitars, noisy distortion, and methodical structure. The epic, drifting, jazzy, chaotic arrangement of “Spring” embodies Anacortes’ changing seasons as Elverum moves through droning chants and clambering noise before the song resolves into a monotone multi-tracked vocal rambling, ending at over thirteen minutes long.
Tracks “Turmoil,” “Boat,” and “Planets” embody the sounds found on earlier Elverum endeavors from the days of The Microphones—crunchy guitars and feedback coupled with clattering, noisy experimentation over warm drums. Fans who have longed for something like The Glow Part 2 will find much to like in these songs. However, these arrangements still incorporate the heavy, plodding bass and guitars present in Mount Eerie’s work, serving as a masterful blend of these two projects—a harmonious balance of each at their best.
On two tracks, Elverum gives listeners something completely fresh in experimental, minimal arrangements of traditional instruments. “(something)” utilizes xylophone almost exclusively to create a musical interlude, while “Books” features violin played pizzicato (plucked) and piano. With almost exactly a minute left in the latter song, the sound sample of a ripping book page introduces a sudden change—the bright major key gives way to limping, thumping strings darkened with foreboding synths as Elverum intones a few lines.
Sauna’s songs may be less unified than previous releases, but in its diverse approaches, the album offers a more natural unfolding of ideas still encompassed by the incredible palette of sounds Elverum has amassed in his mysterious song-world. Operating effectively in recollecting tendencies across Elverum’s discography while moving those styles forward and providing new experimentations, Sauna succeeds in every regard.