Four years later, the Michigan songwriter comes back swinging.
The fragile notes that form Chris Bathgate’s folky songs can be a bit misleading. Upon first listen, you hear the melancholy and longing in his full voice, the dark edges that frame each tune, and the repetition of melodies like painful events you relive over and over. But as it progresses, his latest album Salt Year breaks free of that repetition. And, when its 42 minutes have completed, you feel somehow rejuvenated – as if you could handle it again. Like getting a tattoo, it’s almost a challenge not to go under the needle and hit “play” one more time.
The opening sequence on Salt Year rests on a method of repetitious melodies, an interesting string of songs that follow the structure to build tension within the album. For many minutes of the first half of the disc, the tunes seem to be running in circles: Bathgate’s vocal lines on “Eliza (Hue)” and “Levee”, for example, follow each other like elephants through the desert: rarely going astray from the set course.
But it’s the songs that break free of this structure that truly stand out. The rhythmic strum and cinematic layering of “No Silver” is captivating in its simple ascent, and the album’s title track is simply beautiful -- coupling steel pedal guitar with Bathgate’s mournful and melancholic vocals. And, though it may not be your first love on the album, “In the City” will catch your ear thanks to the addition of brass and strings to the traditional folk rock arrangement in a way that is certainly lasting. At the tail end, Salt Year closes with an understated epic. The six-minute “Everything (Overture)” walks the line of highs and lows before descending and eventually coming to an abrupt halt on a haunting fiddle line.
Though it hasn’t yet been that long-lived, Bathgate’s career seems consistently on the fringes of success. His third album, A Cork Tale Wake, came only two years after his first solo release and found semi-fame resting on the heels of its lead single, a tune called “Serpentine” that snakes its way through lingering melodies. But four years have passed since his last album, and Bathgate is yet to cash in on the success that was surely waiting him at that time. Perhaps it is unnecessary to note that the 28-year-old has changed a lot since then, and perhaps it is even less necessary to say that, for him, a lot is riding on this album. Luckily, Salt Year may be the perfect way to jump back into the fold.