The other day I was talking to my roommate about diaries. We both agreed we didn’t have the creative capacity to maintain one; eventually they turn into itemized lists of what we did and ate that particular day. I imagine the idea of a diary is to catalog your thoughts, organize your feelings and allow your mind a bit of inner-focused reflection. For some reason, I just can’t do it. In 2012 I started an audio diary where I would take a field recording of an undetermined length every day, the idea being that sounds are slightly more mysterious out of context compared to photos or words.
I only kept the diary going for a few months before I found myself scrambling to find an interesting noise from my bedroom at 10:45 p.m. But those few months of audio still hold the most vivid imagery in my mind. A recording of 30 seconds of clicking on April 14th springs a memory of a particularly frustrating day running a film projector at my movie theater job at the time. There are things I would have immediately forgotten if not for these recordings. That’s what a diary should be.
Sauna, from Washington State’s Mount Eerie, plays out a lot like an audio diary. It’s unequivocally Elverum: plaintive observations on woodsy, everyday small-town activities. On “Pumpkin” he coos, “I walked to the bookstore in the rain that silently filled the air / All the lights were off or dim.” You can hear a fire crackling in “Sauna,” and he describes an early morning cup of coffee. It’s numbing, routine stuff sung over music that feels like the precipice of chaos—surging, distorted guitars always hanging on the edge of eruption.
There are jarring moments: what sounds like a frantic vibraphone in “(something)” followed by three and a half minutes of black metal infused rumination: “I built this boat on the shore, pushed it into the waves and was born.” Phil has been vocal about the influence of Norse mythology on Sauna, and everywhere you can hear references to swords, swirling black oceans, boats, and fog. “I tear in dreams across the North sea,” his harmonizers sing on “This,” and unless Phil Elverum has been living a double life as a night sailor, you can really visualize a long-bearded, exceptionally violent man with sea salt crusted to his face, slicing through dark water.
The thing that has always drawn me into Mount Eerie has been the personal touches to his home-recorded music. Like the aforementioned crackling fire or the splattering rain that hangs in the background of “Dragon,” these little glimpses into the ambiance of the recording pull you deeper into the mythology of Sauna. It feels more intense when you break away from the fictional stories and catch a brief glimpse of Phil himself: “My life is a small fire I carry around.”
I’ve thought a few times about starting the audio diary back up, but now that I work a 9 to 5 job I feel like my life is even less appealing for interesting daily artifacts. Even back then when I thought I did nothing of note, now I really don’t. The seeping turmoil that encased my life through most of 2012 probably contributed to some of the intrigue of that project, but past the point I stopped recording I can’t remember anymore. More emptiness. And more, and more.
Sauna is out now via P.W. Elverum & Sun.