Mount Eerie, ‘Sauna’ – Album Review
Contemplate Mount Eerie's new, beautiful album 'Sauna,' and recall Louis Hardin, a.k.a. Moondog -- the great New York City street performer of the mid-20th century.
Moondog worked the corner of 6th Avenue and 51st Street in Manhattan, very much alone, between the 1940s and '70s, a street musician who dressed as a Viking and wore a long, Odin-inspired beard. Hardin's music is the sound of the shuffle on the street. He played (and invented) the oo, a resonating, vibraphone-like instrument, as well as the trimba, a percussion instrument that mimics the padding of feet and the clacking of subway cars. Police sirens and barking dogs accompany much of his recorded work. Each of his songs was a prayer to the city, an expression of his search for meaning in overheard conversations and the throwaway pieces of the lives of passersby. His songs celebrated loneliness in a sea of millions. In his 'Moondog Monologue' (1956), he imagined himself as "a burning star in an orbit all of its own."
I couldn't help thinking of Moondog as I listened to 'Sauna.' The differences are obvious -- Mount Eerie, the pseudonym of Phil Elverum, who has also recorded as the Microphones, pours forth tides of sound, also largely working alone but aided by the technology of the 21st century. Elverum eschews the noise and grime of the big city for the trees and mountains of Anacortes, Wash., a small city on an island in the Puget Sound.
But few musicians approach music as Hardin did, and Elverum does -- as a journey; as a way of defining a view of life; as a monologue. Elverum's musical approach on 'Sauna' is, like most of Elverum's albums, like one long suite, with sounds and themes repeating throughout. Like the world around Elverum, the songs don't have clear endings -- they simply recede, giving way to the next moment.
Compositionally, the album owes as much to the sounds of water, and ships, and buzzing jets overhead, as it does to any formal music. On the first track, 'Sauna,' percussive wooden sounds, like sticks burning or fluttering in the wind, underlay a roar like a fog horn. A dull rain falls in the background of 'Dragon.' Occasionally, a black metal wall of guitar comes along and clears away the accumulated sound, leaving only the cold drone that hangs all around the record, heavy and damp like the Northwest air. The record, with its soft intimations of god (lower-case), is like a cathedral, contained, reverent, serene but not always comfortable.
This isn't the first time Elverum has sung of the water and the cold grass and the fog, but now, the lyrics are more direct -- more concretely dedicated to understanding the nature of things. "I have felt that my mention of the mountains or the woods often gets mistaken for a celebration of the merely picturesque. We live in superficial times and I want to go deeper," Elverum says in an essay his website. Elsewhere in the same essay, he describes "the ancient art of song/poem": "a beautiful deep spring that somehow cuts through all layers of complication and can hold permanent and true wisdom in a few simple words or sounds."
On 'Sauna,' Elverum is constantly searching for this spring; on 'Pumpkin,' he watches a shattered pumpkin left on a rocky beach, its "emptiness loose." Elverum sings of emptiness throughout 'Sauna,' but, as he clarified in a tweet last week, he's talking about clarity, about freedom from the detritus of life and the potential for uncovering truth, not loneliness or isolation. He doesn't just notice pumpkins and cold springs, the merely picturesque, but attributes a kind of zen-like significance to them -- relying on them to contain truth. On 'Planets,' he nakedly grasps for the nature of what it means to be alive. "The two of us planets crashing through separate lives," he sings -- like Moondog's burning star, but looking outward, gloriously alone but ceaselessly inquisitive, trying to find the answers in others.
The message Elverum so dearly does not want to be misunderstood is the beauty and mystery in everything, always hiding in plain sight. On the thrashing, restless 'Youth,' the album's closer, he sings: "There’s no moon, my young mind thinks / In a totally black night sky / But there is the moon."
Explore the beauty in all things, Elverum exhorts. For him, the answer is somewhere in a buried spring beneath the streets of Anacortes. Others might find it in the clack of the subway train, beneath the roar of 6th Avenue and 51st Street.