It’s a mellowing experience, one that makes a sleepy day seem bearable. The folky tunes don’t have an underlying layer of misery that marks Bon Iver’s output, and that’s all the better for just watching life go by on a lazy afternoon.
If you’re lazy, you can just put “No Silver” on repeat and drift away. It’s one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, regardless of genre; all the pieces (vocals, lyrics, acoustic guitar, bass, strings, mandolin, drums) fit together perfectly to create a jaw-dropping experience.
But if you start to dissect “Salt Year,” it will let you down. Other than the immaculate “No Silver,” the rest is a pastiche of all the best attributes of indie folk’s last 10 years. It wouldn’t be a problem if “No Silver” didn’t have so much personality; I could just chalk the album up to a beautifully completed paint-by-numbers exercise. But Bathgate has real songwriting skill (or lightning in a bottle, but I feel it’s the former), so I’m not just glossing it over.
Bathgate does owe a debt to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for the sparse, icy moods (“Fur Curled on the Sad Road,” “Borders”), but he also owes Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam for the fuller arrangements he creates (“In the City,” “Own Design”). Fans of Ray LaMontagne will hear flashes of his songwriting here (“In the City,” the title track).
The only other place where Bathgate creates more than the sum of his parts is “Everything (Overture),” where the optimism of his I&W part tempers the sparseness of his Vernon-esque ability, and LaMontagne’s emotiveness is applied over the resulting tension. He inhabits the same mood that “No Silver” built, and that’s a winner. “Levee” also has charms, especially in the unique drum work.
I know it’s hard to write a batch of consistently amazing songs, but when tunes like “No Silver” and “Everything (Overture)” put you in conversation next to the heavy hitters, you’ve got to back that up. “Salt Year” definitely places Bathgate in the ring, but he’s got some growing to do before he’s connecting with more than the occasional haymaker. Still, he’s not doing local fights anymore, either. —Stephen Carradini