Noah Gundersen
A Pillar of Salt


4.0
excellent

Review

by Mathias CONTRIBUTOR (56 Reviews)
October 14th, 2021 | 12 replies


Release Date: 10/08/2021 | Tracklist

Review Summary: I guess I just get nervous when things are going okay

Noah Gundersen is difficult to place in the lexicon of modern singer-songwriters. “Underrated” would be the first word that many would turn to, but that isn’t quite correct. In the past decade plus, he’s released (now) five albums and a cycle of EPs, all to various levels of critical acclaim. “Under-the-radar” would also be employed by some, but that also doesn’t seem to fit. Almost any single that he releases is guaranteed to wrack up a couple million streams, something that even the most widely adored of his contemporaries can struggle to achieve. He regularly collaborates with the indie darling of the moment, Phoebe Bridgers, who features in a highlight on this new album. Gundersen is even able to regularly adapt and change his accessible singer-songwriter/folk sound, so it’s not as if it has necessarily gone stale with his regular output (although 2019’s Lover arguable came close).

A Pillar of Salt is Gundersen’s strongest release, which is quite the achievement across the stunningly consistent career that he has had to this point. Like many releases from the past twelve months, A Pillar of Salt is inspired by the anxiety and forced self-reflection of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led many artists to a number of emotionally creative opuses, but has also led to a number of derivative releases (of course, this is stated without meaning to minimize any of the very real experiences said artists went through). Gundersen’s newest release certainly falls into the former category. “Laurel and Hardy”, the album’s opener, greets us with stripped back introspection. Although named after the famous comedic duo, the song is anything but carefree. Much of the album’s lyrical content is inspired by the biblical story of Lot’s wife and that spiritual theme is laid clear in the opener’s second verse, with the elegant lyrical styling that’s expected of Gundersen coming through in full-force.

I took up the mantle of unshakable faith
On the road to Damascus, I fell to my face
A volunteer martyr burned for your sake
I was a beggar, your love was small change


Now this song and description may invoke the false feeling that this will be a stripped back, introspective album that has become a staple in pandemic era music. However, while a generally “quiet” album, A Pillar of Salt also welcomes the most electronic components of Gundersen has used to this point in his career, leading to a lovely intertwining of those elements with the acoustic stylings that take the forefront of the majority of the album. These elements are immediately introduced in second track “Body”, which begins with a looping keyboard run that gives way to a steady electronic drumbeat. As the song progresses, Gundersen also lets his vocals soar, using a forcefulness that he employs in perfect moments, leading to powerful emotional catharsis.

This opening duo of tracks is a good taster menu for the album, as most remaining tracks employ a combination of both styles found in the fairly different opening tracks. “The Coast” has an anthemic feel, “Magic Trick” takes a mostly acoustic body and adds a few drone-like accoutrements, “Bright Lost Things” ends with about a minute of a beautiful neo-classical soundscape where Gundersen’s voice becomes just another instrument in the mix, and closing track “Almost There” is a lush arrangement that ends the album with a near out-of-body vocal performance. In each song, Gundesen manages to do something that some contemporaries in his genre struggle with - He manages to make each arrangement sound intentional, a perfect compliment to his typical stripped back sound, as opposed to adding details for the sake of perceived evolution

With that, the highlights of Gundersen’s work always come from his lyrics. It’s a fortunate delight that the two most lyrically powerful songs (which is saying something with the lyrics strength across the album) are also two of the best musically. The first is the aforementioned collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, titled “Atlantis”. The backing is mostly sparse, a simple beat paired with piano and some picked acoustic guitar, but builds into a powerful climax as Gundersen’s and Bridgers voices come together to create a beautifully sombre love song that’s baked in sorrow and regret, which is likely what was expected based off of the past work of both artists. The song is rife with metaphors, comparing a first love to the relationship between Atlantis and the ocean, an intentionally blank canvas, and a rusting American car. Read on its own the lyrics would be powerful, but they take on a new degree of emotional intensity when performed by two performers at the peak of their artistry.

The other highlight is “Sleepless in Seattle”, which takes inspiration from Americana storytelling songs, steel guitar, story-set-in-a-bar and all. The song introduces new characters throughout, with their strikingly earnest depictions painting vivid pictures of people desperate to simply make connections. Gundersen has an emotional release at the end of the song, personifying this loneliness in the images of landscapes.

I don’t want to go home
Where it’s just half finished skyscrapers begging the question
Does anyone care anymore?
This city was built on the back of a spirit that I can’t feel anymore
Maybe there’s a new anger or a new seed
for some younger farmer to sow


Gundersen’s work does what the work of any singer-songwriter worth their salt should do. He takes ageless topics such as identity, vices, and faith and makes them both deeply personal and widely universal. Pillars of Salt does this is in exemplary style. Across his discography, Gundersen’s work transcends much of what is expected in the genre. Due to the circumstances of the past 18 months, we’ve seen many artists reach new artistic and emotional heights, but Gundersen was already reaching those heights with much of his previous work. The added global trauma that we have all experienced brings his newest work to an even higher level. With any luck, A Pillar of Salt will be the release that cements him as one of the best songwriters of his generation, which he surely is.



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user ratings (8)
3.3
great


Comments:Add a Comment 
dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


1605 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Hi Sput. Been a bit since I wrote one of these and certainly felt rusty. It's very wordy and maybe focused on individual songs, but I hopefully did the overall album justice. He certainly deserves all of the recognition, which is what inspired me to sit down and write this.

Any feedback would be appreciated! I hope that I'll be doing this a little more consistently again, but life has been wild.

tyman128
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


2752 Comments


gonna tab this one because I wanna read it soon! this album has been on my radar but just haven't gotten around to it
once I finish with this hell of a week I'll give it a spin and check this review out

Digging: Silent Planet - Iridescent

Lasssie
October 14th 2021


1264 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Nice review

Actually been listening to this as background Music at home quite a bit lately

BlushfulHippocrene
Staff Reviewer
October 14th 2021


3822 Comments


Hell yeah Mathias. Glad you're back; hope you've been alright. Some typos:

‘although 2019’s arguably Lover came close’ – couple of words mixed around I think
‘while a generally “quite” album’ – quiet* I assume
‘the most electronic components of Gundersen used has to this point in his career’ – Gunderson has used?

Review's a bit long and some of the expression's a bit too long-winded IMO, but that's normal after a break: the longer I don't write a review, the more difficult it becomes (and the less I want to do it). All your ideas are good, though, and you get them across.

Because I can't just judge a modern folk album on its own terms: this reminds me of Cohen at times, and even Ruston Kelly and early Glen Hansard. Excited to dig deeper; haven't loved any of his previous albums but I think this one is likely to hook me.

Digging: Corbin - Ghost With Skin

Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


3061 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Good to see you back reviewing Mathias, always enjoy reading your stuff. I've never heard any of this guy's music, but this looks interesting. Would you recommend this as a starting point?

dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


1605 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

@tyman I could see you really enjoying this!

@Lassie Currently have it on while having a work from home day. Very good for that purpose

@Blueh Thank you for reading through and the feedback! This is honestly one of the longest reviews I’ve written and a large part of that is that I’ve certainly forgotten how to edit, so decided to just publish in it’s bloated glory. That’s a skill I’ll have to gain back. I also think all of your comparisons are apt. He has an old school lyrical style and I oftentimes lump him in with that Irish troubadour gang even though he’s from Seattle. Ruston is an in interesting comparison, but certainly there with Sleepless in Seattle

@Sunny I actually think this is a good starting point, but just know that it’s more stripped back the further back you go in his discog. Ledges is his most popular and my other favorite, but also pretty straightforward folk

Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


3061 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Thanks Mathias! Will check this one first then...

JesperL
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


3568 Comments


wonderful review dm, will give this a listen for sure!

Sowing
Moderator
October 14th 2021


39715 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Nice review. I've heard Ledges and Lovers from Gundersen; I thought the former was excellent and the latter was average.

Digging: Imminence - Heaven in Hiding

Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


3061 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Jamming this now, pretty damn good so far

Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


3061 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

What's the point in a picket sign,



when you've got no one to blame

Koris
Contributing Reviewer
October 14th 2021


12432 Comments


Really nice review man. Haven't really checked out Noah's work yet, but I'll give this a spin soon. Good to see you back :]



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