“Holy shit!” is my exact thought each and every time I listen to Chris Bathgate’s new album, Salt Year. The sheer musical and lyrical power of this entire album got under my skin and seeped into my veins becoming a part of my human fiber. A life-affirming album that affirms I’m alive and not numbed from the massive amounts of sad sack singer-songwriters I listen to daily; instead, Bathgate incessantly stirs my soul and emotions through his pensive and highly expressive songs.
Salt Year is Bathgate’s fifth album and his best effort to date. Inspired by a dark and tumultuous time in his life, this is a record full of wistful songs about lost love, heartbreak and time’s effect on love. And despite the album’s heavy theme, it never comes off as oppressive or tiresome, but, rather, captivating and loose. Every song is a richly complex and brilliant arrangement with common threads evenly moving the album from beginning to end. Musically, the album is transcendental. But, its Bathgate’s vivid lyrical snapshots combined with his confident yet vulnerable vocals that make Salt Year a masterpiece.
The variety of sounds and styles Bathgate uses in Salt Year‘s forty-two minutes of perfection is completely compelling. Beginning with the opening track “Eliza (Hue),” Bathgate sets the album’s dark tone and dreamy feel while posing some questions that introduce us to the theme of heartbreak: Was it sacred? Did you scream out? Were you silent? Were you singing? What secret did he tell ya? Did you kiss him? Was it light out? Then, transitioning and floating into the assertive layers of jangling guitar, junk percussion, swelling fiddles and mandolin riffs in “No Silver” where we find Bathgate “callow and gone.” In “Poor Eliza” we hear one of the best and most memorable melodies on the album while now taking notice of Bathgate’s bitterness and hurt – “It is what it is what it is.” In “Fur Curled on the Sad Road” the music begins to unravel and open up from the melancholy acoustic to somewhat sad and somewhat hopeful reverberating horns. Bathgate rocks out with a blues guitar on both “In the City” and “Time” while looping it on “Own Design” and “Borders.” Now, this is where I want to focus more of my attention as I have focused most of my attention on “Borders” and “Salt Year” since downloading the album.
“Borders” is the most entrancing track on Salt Year. On this song, Bathgate’s looping never gets tedious, if anything, it adds more meaning. The repetitiveness reminds me of the ticking of a clock. You know, the kind that you can’t help but focus on because it’s the only noise in the room. It also reminds me of someone pacing — paranoid, restless and anxious, the same feelings I get while listening to the song. Each time I have played “Borders,” I’m brought back to my days of depression with the verse: “Well, I don’t get by on a happy tune/And, I don’t get sun in the afternoon/ And when the evening fear is just coming on/ I’m all static and quivering with the shades all drawn.” It’s hard to let the world and light in once you’ve been hurt. The only thing you want to do is draw the shades and hide in the dark.
Next, the album’s thesis, “Salt Year,” is a thoughtful reflection on love lost and the time that passes since losing that love. In this song, Bathgate gives a clear impression of heartbreak, heartache and regret. The anguish I feel while listening to this song is sometimes unbearable. The languishing pedal steel cuts to the core of my soul, but the bright horns toward the end as Bathgate repeats “try again” does leave me with some hope. It’s an absolutely beautiful and haunting piece of music in which I have connected to on a deep personal level.
Hell, I’ve connected to the entire album on an emotional level. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve experienced similar losses and felt the same pain in the past, or if it’s because of a recent loss I’ve had to deal with, but this album strikes a profound personal chord. I mean, the loss that I’m dealing with is not a loss in the sense of death (although I’ve been coping with that too) but one in the form of a move,and not just a move to another neighborhood, to another continent. Maybe that’s not it. Truth is, I think I’m going through an existential crisis. I’m growing older and coming upon a birthday, so I’m taking stock of my life including my current and constant state of living single and feeling lonely but that soon will pass.