When you enter a sauna for the first time, it appears to be a mirage. The swirling wisps of steam cloud the room and turn milky white when light from the open door hits them, creating a momentary claustrophobia. There is no air. There’s only thick, wet steam, equal parts fresh water and communal sweat. The wooden panels look like paintings, as beads of water begin to dribble down their sides. Humidity starts to suffocate you. The panels underneath your body start to scorch. Yes, heat rises, but in a sauna it’s inescapable. It burns you up and enters your body until you finally learn to give in, to relax, to adapt.
Mount Eerie, aka Phil Elverum, mimics that harrowing experience on his new double LP, Sauna. “I don’t think the world still exists/ Only this room in the snow,” he sings on the opening title track. It begins with him gasping, the last taste of unaltered air before entering the room. Everything after is a reflection. He’s admitting himself into a room of meditation. “Life is a small fire I carry around,” he continues. Its glowing coals are responsible for turning water, our surroundings, into a cleansing process. In that sense, life is what balances you out, but it’s also what harms you, burns you, and tests you.
For Elverum, the wood of a sauna was the wood of the reclaimed church in Washington where he recorded the album on a 24-track analog unit. Its solitude gave him the focus necessary to create that 10-minute opening number and the 13-minute “Spring”. In the latter, chimes and cymbals ring, clearing the way for thick bass shooting out of massive amps. The season named in the title summarizes the goal of Sauna well. Ice melts away, and nature is reborn. On “Spring”, atmospheric black metal pummels into the ground until the feedback becomes a warm, numbing sensation. “Mind like a flower falling … living life as if it’s not a passing animal, dream, a poem, a brief shelter seen as home,” he sings, going on to detail a basement flooded with placid water. Our unending thoughts distort what’s physically laid out in front of us. Losing them is part of that process.
Elverum’s work as both Mount Eerie and The Microphones is easy to idolize. To his followers, he’s a model of musical rectitude. He surveys where life has placed him and writes of its honesty like some erudite scholar. He runs his own label, draws bleak comics, and sings Lil Wayne at karaoke. Phil Elverum is as much a mystery as he is a well-spoken figure, and for that, listeners crawl toward his feet, begging to be reminded that nothing is impermeable.
For the current generation, Mount Eerie represents a socially accepted seclusion we never had access to. We’re in a digital age celebrating curated fads made popular by FOMO, blue thumbs up, and yellow stars. The loneliness of today grows out of watching life through a thousand pixels. We suffocate ourselves trying to find meaning, cherry picking articles to share later on, momentarily grabbing on to a sense of identity. When will we be brought back to reality? Did we ever know reality to begin with? We click on headlines in an ironic attempt to find ourselves. Sauna is Elverum’s gift to help us end that habit. As made evident in the video for “This”, we need to learn how to let abstract associations transport us inside of ourselves. The meditative disconnect from our surroundings lets us figure out how, exactly, to hold the awkward handles of our personal void.
If there’s anything his past work has proved, it’s that Mount Eerie works best when dramatically switching from folk to fuzzed-out mental violence. On “Dragon”, Allyson Foster and Ashley Eriksson take over the melody like straight-faced sirens singing over the sound of rain and planes taking off overhead. “Books” pounds with criss-crossing Dawn of Midi rhythms before the abrupt rip of a page segues into a faster, more brooding direction. “Turmoil” and “Boat” both pound with overwhelming gloom. His hushed lines make Elverum appear taciturn, but the music stands tall behind him, gnashing its teeth to tell of fury, confusion, and wonder. It becomes a desolate landscape that somehow doesn’t look too scary, even with bombed ruins gaping on “Youth”, metal shards swinging in the bass. In that moment, it becomes clear he isn’t suggesting a fight between your past and present self. He asks that you simply be and try to let others be, to let your heartbeat find a calm rate while the trees find a comfortable angle at which to lean. Your house decides how tight the floorboards should be, and your anxieties decide how strongly they should grip onto your brain.
In the weeks leading up to the album’s release, Phil Elverum took to Twitter to reflect on the record: “Look, I fully understand that saunas are weird and sometimes gross. Still though.” He’s right. It’s a process. It gets difficult. It leaves us exhausted and dirty and out of breath. It’s the smooth palm of life beating us up and then massaging out the kinks. He made sure Sauna is a trudge through comfort, discomfort, fear, and acceptance, a completed revolution that leaves us flat on our backs squinting to make out what’s on the other side of this boiling steam. And isn’t that what we wanted? As Elverum calls out, “So I make coffee while looking out the window/ And notice that I can’t remember when or if I woke up,” we find that it’s better to feel the boil of a sauna’s steam than nothing at all.
Essential Tracks: “Dragon”, “Spring”, and “Youth”