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.