Album Review: Salt Year – Chris Bathgate
In his 1952 essay “The Gifted Listener,” legendary American composer Aaron Copland suggests that “[t]he ideal listener, above all else, possesses the ability to lend himself to the power of music.” With the advent of digital access, the sense of awe in the power of music is a common experience. Transcendent moments are more familiar and constantly informed by a history that is only a click or two away. Unfortunately, for someone who listens with a critical ear, this muddies the path to the sort of reverent place Copland is talking about. Often times it’s hard not to hear a history of moments in every song and feel more connected to (or inspired by) that history than the song itself.
What Ann Arbor’s Chris Bathgate does with his 2011 release Salt Year is intravenously connect the listener to the primary awe of his music’s power. It is easily his best effort – an emotionally complex, brilliantly arranged record, a masterstroke. Bathgate expands on his palette of Gothic Indie-Folk, gently allowing inspiration to seep in at no cost to the inherent power of the songs.
There are many triumphs on Salt Year, points of inspiration that overwhelm; these rest comfortably within the space of the record without any missed moments in between, the mark of a musician in harmonious stride. As opposed to his previous records, whose hiccups were mostly acceptable hints at potential, Salt Year’s “in-between” spaces are simply fascinating.
“Fur Curled On The Sad Road,” is one of these moments and methodically paces Salt Year. It is Bathgate fully formed, breathing comfortably and stretching out in the space given, its points of crescendo exploding in reverberant horn sections. Another such “in-between” moment is “Own Design,” a different and angular look. This song might be tangentially familiar to those who have seen Bathgate play live, but he’s warped the shape of the song immensely for the record. It is a composition informed by his live loops and constructed upon a foundational melody of slightly distorted guitar harmonics, again marching at a deliberate pace.
Though the record’s high points are profuse, there are some particularly stunning ones worth mentioning. “No Silver,” is the first single and a testament to Bathgate’s ear for arrangement. It’s a simple song – layers of beat-up sounding acoustic guitar, some full, junky percussion, swelling fiddles on the chorus, and a mandolin-shredding interlude. These are woven masterfully to form a song that might be best enjoyed in a car in the summer, driving with the windows down on the way back from the funeral of a loved one whose death you’ve only recently come to accept. Maybe this sounds silly, but how else to describe it? These are the kinds of images Salt Year evokes: emotionally complex ones. Bathgate writes songs without easy answers or clean summaries.
“Poor Liza,” offers one of Bathgate’s most compelling central melodies to date, summoning his affinity for mountain-Folk music, with a vocal performance at perhaps its most sweet and engaging. “Borders,” is a melancholy study in paranoia that culminates in a charged, overwhelming typhoon of drums, distorted guitars, and latticed vocal lines. “In the City” and “Time,” offer some uplift, the latter especially, as Bathgate decides to wail on the guitar a bit, channeling a bit of Crazy Horse in his brief foray into Classic Rock.
Even after months of enjoyment, Salt Year merits more discussion, more careful listening, and more time. There are recurring melodies, motifs, ideas reshaped and reborn in innumerable contexts – elements that demand far more than description and evaluation. There is little more to say that isn’t reductive. If a musician seeks the ideal listener, then the critical listener might find the ideal musician in Chris Bathgate. He is one who makes it nearly impossible not to bask in the power of what he communicates. Salt Year is a rare achievement. It will take a titanic effort to challenge its position as the most affecting and essential record of 2011.