Mount Eerie Sauna

[P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2015]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: (something)
Others: The Microphones/Mount Eerie

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. Elverum’s psychogeography is one I have been treading — as a listener — for 15 years now. The elements — water, mountain, wood, wind, dust — of his heart have become my own, however uniquely. And now, as I consider Elverum’s discography (which is, among contemporary artists, my favorite), I’m curious why I have a negative response to his most recent album, Sauna.

Sauna begins, understandably, with an exhale. This is Elverum’s first proper album in two years, and it is one that will be (as has been repeatedly suggested) “definitive” of his musical career. Elverum’s own understanding of Sauna is somewhat different. In an essay self-published last year, Elverum stated that he was striving toward simplicity and wisdom. It’s true that, in life, simplicity and wisdom become comprehensive and thereby manifest as a process of re-translation and re-iteration of learned experiences into a language not yet known or, in an ultimate sense, knowable. But there is peace in death’s visibility, in the blurry border that stands between clarity and mystery. There is peace in presence.

Of course, that presence betrays insecurities. In the same essay, Elverum states that he wants to be known. He wants to clarify his images and metaphors for the sake of proper interpretation and understanding, as if the artist ever had control over their own interpretation. In light of this, and perhaps with the sole exception of “Don’t Smoke”/”Get Off The Internet,” never before has Elverum’s work seemed so boldly transparent, so artificial. On Sauna, there are no moralistic declarations, but there is a lot of artless rambling and merely descriptive lyrics about emptiness, time/space, and Anacortes. The almost total absence of symbolistic images and complex metaphors dulls the sonic landscape of which it’s a part; words seemingly serve, above all, a utilitarian function on Sauna, so it doesn’t help that they’re oddly uninspired. There are moments of lyrical grace, as when at the end of “Pumpkin” Elverum sings of the “loose emptiness” of a broken pumpkin on the waves. But, mostly, the album betrays simplicity at the expense of simple description and, in that respect, continuously confuses an object with its meaning or lack thereof.

Likewise, musically, Sauna suffers from being transparent about its own history and composition. In the past, Elverum has freely appropriated from a broad range of artists (ranging from My Bloody Valentine to Leonard Cohen’s Casio jams to Xasthur’s depressive black metal). What was noteworthy about those appropriations, however, was how seamlessly, if experimentally, they were assimilated into Elverum’s vision for what his artwork was to become. While they were clear citations, they never felt obvious; they were always wild, potential things in his hands. But on Sauna, Elverum’s attempts to mimic heavy metal rock ballads, Tim Hecker, and certain so-called “holy” and unholy minimalists alike, feel inconsequential and compositionally uninteresting. That’s not to say that every citation falls flat: Elverum’s utilization of atonality and his choral gestures promise truly significant work to come, and his nod toward Sabbath is totally welcome. But the result is that Sauna’s stronger moments — tracks like “Dragon,” “Emptiness,” “Spring,” “Turmoil,” and “Boat,” which point toward a great, vibrant album — feel either out of place or are counterbalanced by tracks that are less memorable or, to paraphrase another TMTer (and pass off the blame, of course), old beyond their years.

If Sauna could be said to be “definitive,” then, it is only insofar as it defines, like sunlight cast across a room, dust particles in the air. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Elverum has never been more present, in this way, in his work, than in Sauna, among decomposed and decomposing elements. Either way, I’m grateful that artists are not confined to the narratives that we, or they, construct.

Links: Mount Eerie - P.W. Elverum & Sun

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