Review: Chris Bathgate – Salt Year (2011)

I realized upon first listen that Salt Year, the latest release from Michigan’s revered Chris Bathgate, was a record that would affect my life in a very real way. I wasn’t sure why exactly but as I first listened to the album, months ago, I intrinsically knew that Salt Year was going to mean something to me. I just didn’t know what exactly that something was until earlier today when I got the pleasure of kicking it in the studios of Ann Arbor’s 107.1 as Bathgate guested on Matthew Altruda’s Tree Town Sound.

Bathgate was paying 107.1 a visit to promote the impending release of  Salt Year and his string of Michigan shows to celebrate the album’s release. Before playing a solo acoustic version of “In The City”, Altrudra asked Bathgate what his latest full length was about. He then reiterated what I’d read previously in the press release for Salt Year, saying that the album is about the juxtaposition of time and love and how emotion is affected by the passing of years. When I had initially found out about the concept, I was intrigued but it wasn’t until I heard Bathgate himself say it and subsequently re-listened to the masterful songs that make up Salt Year that I fully understood: Salt Year was a record that I couldn’t truly love until I’d experienced loss.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to live with the bitterness of heartbreak to enjoy Salt Year but I’m the kind of gal who needs songs that I can relate to to soundtrack whatever emotion I’m going through at any given time. And the fact of the matter is that 2011, still in it’s infancy, has already been the most torturous, tumultuous, and heart wrenching year I’ve ever lived through.  Seven weeks ago, my dad died of a sudden brain aneurysm. Couple that with the fact that, shortly thereafter, I stopped speaking to the person who had been an anchor of sorts and lost a number of remarkably close friends and you’ve got yourself one sad, sobbing mess of a girl.

The weeks after my dad’s death were orchestrated by the macabre masterpiece of another Michigan local who also got a review here on MezzicMatt Jones. Jones’s album ended up being a sort of crutch for me, a record I listened to on repeat during the long, lonesome nights spent alone in my apartment, crying inconsolably while faced with the grave reality of true heartbreak. Eventually, however, time passed. The sadness I felt began to come in waves instead of filling my lungs with it’s ever-constant presence until I was drowning under the weight of it. I started to have “good days” and with those “good days”, I started to need the comfort Jones provided progressively less and less. Even so, I still needed comfort but exactly what comfort I did need was a mystery to me. Without one album that summed up my emotions, I felt lost. The fact that my life was gingerly improving and I didn’t have a CD to soundtrack this transitional period, the strange time between “heartbreak” and “better” that I’m living in the midst of, bothered me more than I’d admit.

Then I heard Bathgate talk about love versus time and I knew: It was entirely possible that Salt Year would mean more to me than other record I’d hear this year.

Salt Year is a masterful triumph of a record, a better album than most accomplished musicians could ever even fantasize of producing.  It unfurls around you like smoke and before you know it, your entire mind is filled with its sentiments. Despite the album’s slow paceSalt Year is never lackadaisical. In fact, through out it’s entirety, Salt Year is executed with the precision of a deft hand with a distinct purpose. This is Chris Bathgate at his best, emotionally vulnerable, honest and raw. It’s those sentiments that anchors Salt Year throughout it’s forty-two minutes but equal attention is commanded by Bathgate’s deep, rich voice and expert musicianship, all of which combine to create a near-perfect folk magnum opus.

Salt Year is the record that will make you fall in love with Chris Bathgate. It will win your heart with enrapturingly poetic lyrics (“The shadows all cirrus and cursive are washing out in the distance”), your respect with a transcendent array of instruments (Washboard? Sweet!), and it will linger in your mind long after the final notes of “Everything (Overture)” fade into ether.

Every song on Salt Year is memorable, endearing in it’s own way, with the dark tincture of opening track “Eliza (Hue)” setting the tone for the ten songs to follow. “Eliza (Hue)” finds Bathgate posing question after question for his titular girl (“Was it sacred? Did you scream out? Did you kiss him? Was it light out?”) amongst the distorted fuzz of his electric guitar, the piano’s gentle lilt, and a fiddle melody that is just one of Salt Year’s many atypical hooks.

Bathgate, always a deeply affecting songwriter, shows more lyrical agility on Salt Year than he ever has before. “No Silver” finds the musician “callow and gone”. In “Borders”, he’s “static and quivering”. Later, on “In The City”, Bathgate explains “why my heart is cracked” and you can’t help but feel as if your heart is cracked as well, be it cracking for Bathgate or for your own immeasurable ache.

Bathgate’s voice, the audible equivalent of crushed velvet, is the perfect tone to sing out his sentiments. Oft times, Salt Year finds Bathgate showing a whispered restraint with his vocals, the frequent layering of which only showcases the multifaceted richness of his voice even more. Instrumentally, Salt Year impresses repeatedly. “Levee” is anchored on multi-layered drums that sear. “Everything (Overture)” features some of the most perfectly executed trumpet since Scott Brackett played on Shearwater’s “Rooks”. The tone of Bathgate’s guitar, with it’s occasional dissonance, is beautifully haunting throughout the entirety of the hometown hero of Ann Arbor’s third full length.

Salt Year is such a deeply personal record that it seems as if it should be difficult to relate to. In fact, the same subject matter under the care of a lesser songwriter would have been. Bathgate, however, is a talented man and that much is made apparent track after track, as the tale of Bathgate’s own “salt year” unfurls in such a way that it exposes the wounds still present from your own heartbreaks, be they the ghosts of years-old scars or recent raw wrong-doings. Bathgate’s narrative of his “salt year” documents an obviously miserable time but his latest effort finds the musician’s poetic verses exposing the beauty that can be found in the most tragic of times.

The title track is the most heartbreaking and enrapturing song on Salt Year, a gem amongst nearly a dozen standouts. Anchored on the memories of a love long since past that still stings with all the vibrant pain of a fresh wound, “Salt Year” finds Bathgate recalling a time seventeen years prior when he “should’ve hauled off and kissed her”. The regret of it lingers and Bathgate compares his ache to the diapasons of a “cracked crystal second hand wind chime, just clanging for a lover”, as Frontier Ruckus’s Matt Milia lends his deft hand to Bathgate’s cause with pedal steel so beautiful that you just might weep. As “Salt Year” wraps up with Bathgate imploring himself to “try again”, it seems easy to reconcile love and time, heartbreak and healing, and move on, even if your “old love’s on fire”.

I never knew about love until this year. You see, I didn’t used to believe in love until 2011, when I realized I’d been in love all this time, with the friends I was losing, my dad who died, and a boy who, even now, after everything, I’d spill my secrets to if he told me he still cared. 2011 has been four months of hell, marred by heartbreak after heartbreak so intense that I, at one time, thought my own “salt year” had raped me of all human emotions, leaving me distant and cold. Has it? Am I in fact a shadow of the vivid, vibrant person I used to be? I think it’s too soon to tell but if Bathgate can survive his “salt year”, I think I can too.

Rating: 8.9/10

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