(P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2015)
By Adam Downer | 26 February 2015
The first thing you’ll notice about Sauna is the setting. Phil Elverum opens what is otherwise the coldest album of the young year by blowing on an ember. Soon a fire comes to life, with wood crackling beneath a warm synth chord that ever so slowly builds to insufferable heat. Several quiet minutes of timbre fluctuations pass before Elverum begins singing a fluttering melody to himself. The words are almost background noise, a babble muttered as if it didn’t care if it was heard or not, until he calls the song into being with a freezing couplet: “I don’t think the world still exists. Only this room in snow.”
The log cabin is a cliché setting for emotional detox, the place the artist goes in order to exorcise some demon, usually an ex-lover (see: For Emma, Forever Ago ). Sauna isn’t so romantic. Its cabin sits in the middle of a frozen wasteland independent from the rhythmic pulse of time, its demon the fraying knot tying existence and purpose together. “Emptiness” is a tangible character on Sauna, a nebulous enemy not unlike The NeverEnding Story’s The Nothing. It fills everything with the same sort of massive sorrow. Bags, pumpkins, and Elverum himself are not described as having “nothing” in them, but rather Emptiness. For Sauna, Emptiness is a massive muffler. Sauna is a folk, rock, and indie record struggling to be heard over impenetrable drones. The moments Elverum cracks through are characterized by an icy hopelessness, full of weighted, stark observations like “I can’t remember when (or if) I woke up,” “A tractor idling two blocks away in the fog, unseen,” “I walked to the bookstore in a rain that silently filled the air.” Before the songs themselves start to really register, the thing you’ll notice about Sauna is how heavy the whole thing is.
Underneath this isolating exterior is a stormy record with dashes of menace. Sauna simmers with a bitterness that doesn’t come out in poetic bile but rather in Elverum’s quiet, assured vocals and in the record’s musky makeup. In the opening three tracks, wind, guitars, drums, and Elverum compete for your ear’s attention until they form a gorgeous clutter. Vocals paint a lonely existence of wandering around, confused—“Dragon” ends with the grammatically stilted “Going into the basement again, I reach down beneath the human.” There are hints of darkness, dissonances held a bit long, references to a “dragon that roars” dropped quietly. The dragon doesn’t show until the overwhelming, dissonant synth chord kicking off “Emptiness” and Sauna’s angrier, musically heavy middle section. After Sauna opened with sad coldness, the massive tonal shift turns it almost frantic. In “Boat,” Elverum muses “I was born from nowhere, and to nowhere I’ll return,” as if he were totally unaware of the earthquake of drums bashing underneath him or the guitars tremolo-picked into a tidal wave. Next to the storm he creates, he stays hushed, letting his timid voice be supplemented by the great cacophony that’s communicating more about the music’s character than his voice and lyrics could do alone.
That character is cold and deep but there’s something alluring about it nonetheless. It is not that there’s a secret heart of optimism peeking through Sauna. It’s that there isn’t one. Sauna offers a glimpse of depression settling over the world like a veil, and sounds the terror of living underneath. From here, Elverum communicates a melancholy confusion, his environment falling apart—the basement is flooded, he’s trapped in his boat at sea, the metaphors piling on top of one another as Elverum works to explain the extent of isolation. In “Spring,” hellish organ chords call and hellish choir chords respond, the two of them trudging through a landscape of feedback and drone. Towards the end, the elements subside, leaving Elverum, locked in tight harmony, frantically delivering lyrics like a prayer. It’s the most inhuman Sauna gets, a climax channeling the other side, hell sprung into existence. It’s the darkness simmering beneath Sauna brought to life.
Sauna is not fun to listen to, but it is very powerful. It’s an “unconventionally” pretty record, memorable for how effective it is at creating a tone so singularly dark without ever playing to sentimentality, how it is so filled with Emptiness but hardly catatonic. It seethes and sizzles and leaves a powerful tension in its wake. “Youth,” the final track, ends with a methodical beat, nothing changed, no catharsis reached. But in the listener, there remains a sense of lived experience, a trip to that precipice between reality and Emptiness. Sauna goes to a scary place, so there’s relief when it ends. There is also, however, a very strong impulse to go back.