By Zane Warman
If there’s one thing Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum wants you to know, it is that he is aging and will eventually die.
On “Sauna,” Elverum’s seventh release under this experimental moniker, the Washington multi-instrumentalist uses a swath of influences — folk, garage rock and even black metal — to craft, for worse or for better, one of the most emotionally bleaching records of recent memory.
Sauna begins pleasantly, following an ambient music paradigm: low, holy organ sounds over crackling incidental drums, as well as surprises in the form of vicious, synth stings reminiscent of the now iconic blare from the film “Inception” that run under the title track’s ten-minute length. With its patience, the stormy atmosphere seems to prepare itself for a lengthy, subtle awakening of senses.
Soon though, it is realized that flow and coherence didn’t appear to be a concern in constructing the album, almost in spite of the slow-burning opener. Songs abruptly end, shift into jarringly different melodies and textures mid-song, or are overtaken by discordant noise; which road the song will take can almost never be guessed. The scatterbrained change-ups make songs like “Spring” and “Youth,” each containing passages of harrowingly dreary brilliance, unlistenable from beginning to end. It would be easy to dismiss this as lack of creativity if the songs felt incomplete, but Mount Eerie shows a gift for conjuring dark scenes of any scale.
The production, lo-fi through and through, settles into two camps, neither of which are mutually exclusive to an individual track. In one, cavernous guitars from the days of Seattle grunge lay over sinister piano lines. The other is a quaint softness of female harmonies and harp-like strums. Aside from its charming sloppiness, little is left to connect the musical ideas smoothly.
This widely erratic range undermines Elverum’s consistently unaffected vocal delivery, which give off the impression he murmured them into his phone as he laid motionless on a couch. This anemia complements the seaside dirge of “Pumpkin” or the haunting spoken word chant within “Spring,” but fails to enhance the thick aura in “Sauna” and nearly ruins the erupting, punch-drunk shoegaze instrumental of “Boat.”
Elverum’s choice to engulf his voice in the ethereal mix appear to make his words pointless, which may very well be by design. The lyrics ramble sorrowfully about futility, a tone that is the capstone theme of the album but becomes relentlessly redundant over the album’s 56 minute runtime. As with the musicianship, the words range from thoughtful and telling of character (“I’m still trying to let the spring emerge from beneath every thought”), although the majority land as meaningless or comically nihilist (“Someone asked me what was in my bag/I said, ‘more emptiness’”).
The bleakness Mount Eerie champions focuses on “Planets,” a calling card for the album’s mood despite it lasting shorter than 90 seconds. Elverum’s voice is spotlighted by buzzy, forlorn guitars and jittery drum fills. The language of his lyrics is weighty and existential, finding him at his most yearning and believable. “This,” too, feels like a eureka moment for the album. The now-familiar blurry album aesthetic embarks down the rabbit hole on choppy waves of organ, adding honking woodwinds in the essence of Yellow House-era Grizzly Bear. The result is nightmarish in the best terms and, unlike other unexpected fades, leaves a terrifying impression.
At any given moment, it can be hard to tell if “Sauna” is producing steam, smoke, or smog. The whiplash-inducing instrumental unpredictability make the album so uneven it cuts holes in Elverum’s songwriting, which is otherwise visibly strong. Matched with its repetitive ruminations on mortality and banality, make it a very draining listen, especially when more satisfyingly numbing experiences, even in Mount Eerie’s own catalog, are out in the world Elverum aimlessly inhabits.
Zane Warman is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org