When I reached out to the songwriter, Slow Dakota (born PJ Sauerteig), for a statement on his new album, he responded by sending an 18-minute YouTube video on which soil types are best for growing blueberries. Perhaps his way of saying, “Figure it out yourself.” An Indiana native, Sauerteig began releasing music as Slow Dakota as a sophomore at Columbia University. He first made waves with his 2013 release – Burstner and the Baby – a short concept album about a mother talking to her unborn fetus. After graduating from Columbia, Sauerteig returned to his childhood home in Ft Wayne to record his third album – The Ascension of Slow Dakota. Released this month on Massif Records, The Ascension is a massive, dizzying record, and the best thing Slow Dakota’s ever made.
Trying to pin The Ascension into one genre, or sound, is a nightmarish task. After all, nearly a third of the album isn’t even music – six of the album’s 19 songs are spoken word poetry. Instead of reading them himself, Sauerteig recruited the likes of the English philosopher, Philip Kitcher, and the American poet, Joseph Fasano. But in an album as long as The Ascension is, these short, cryptic poems come as welcome interludes between blocks of music, dividing the album into chapters. Allegedly, the ending of the spoken word track, “An Exile’s Theory,” felt incomplete to Sauerteig. So he bought a next-day flight to New Zealand, packed a bag, and spent a few days there recording local birdsong. The trip may have bled the album’s budget – but, lo and behold, at the end of “An Exile’s Theory,” you can hear the birds.
The music on The Ascension reaches into several genres, and a wide range of influences. Almost as if Joanna Newsom, Vangelis, Beirut, King Crimson, and Regina Spektor had a baby, and asked Henry Purcell to raise it. Sauerteig’s records are typically sparse with little more than piano, vocals, ukulele, and percussion. The Ascension, then, is a huge departure in production and arrangement, a lush tapestry of flutes, strings, drums, organs, and harmonies (likely the result of Sauerteig’s collaboration with NYC producer, Sahil Ansari, and famed mastering engineer, Greg Calbi). Songs like “Proverbs, after Vangelis” are insanely layered walls of sound, but Sauerteig is still willing to take his armour off in “The Tooth Fairy,” which is classic Slow Dakota, with just piano and voice.
“Paul, Pining for his Wife” is another piano and voice track. Sauerteig’s sister lends vocal harmonies in the haunting song about a destroyed marriage. “The Lilac Bush” rings with flutes and booming toms, gongs, and organs. For such a bold, grandiose sound, its lyrics are delicate as can be. Sauerteig winds in references to Walt Whitman, the Gospels, and Thomas Hardy. “I Saw Christ Crying in Hermes” ventures into the backwaters of folk and bluegrass, with Sauerteig strumming away on the dulcimer (his lyrics cheekily skewer materialism and big-city elitism).
The album climaxes with “The Whale Vomits the Three onto Dry Land,” a cinematic, orchestral piece with strings and a blaring horn section.
If the album has a weakness, it is perhaps its extravagance. Listening all the way through can feel, at times, like eating a bowl of caviar in one sitting. Sauerteig has crammed so many ideas, so many melodies, instruments, literary references, and styles into one album that it can feel exhausting. But this richness is also what sets the album apart as a masterpiece. In the Bible, an “ascension” is when God raises a hero up into heaven – Christ, Elijah, etc. – as the ultimate exaltation. I certainly doubt Sauerteig will enter the atmosphere anytime soon, but, in this case, his self-importance is well earned. The Ascension is Slow Dakota at his most creative, and his most unhinged – a prodigy in full possession of his talents. For those willing to really listen, the album is as thoughtful and complex as an album can hope to be.
review by Joseph Keipe