The declaration of “This city was built on the back of a spirit I don’t feel anymore” makes for a rather grim outlook at first glance but ‘A Pillar Of Salt’ isn’t intentionally morose, at least that’s not what it’s trying for. Instead, the fifth album from Seattle-based Noah Gundersen is harshly retrospective, something Gundersen has been open about after he took a year away to escape the grimness of the pandemic: “A shallow grave for a lot of ghosts. Including my own”. In spite of the way things are, ‘A Pillar of Salt’ calls upon the way things were, good and bad, in the hopes of looking forward to the way things could be, with all the haunting ambient electronic-folk flair that Noah has come to be known for.
The scene is set right from the get go in ‘Laurel and Hardy’, the opening ambience and keys building into a slow-dance ballad with some tear-rendering electric guitars that ‘Body’ rips out as it switches intensity with warbling electronics: “If I told you then what you could’ve been… Would you have even listened?”. ‘The Coast’ gives something of a rather defiant album thesis statement in “too anxious to live, too stubborn to die”, a sudden resolution from Gundersen that betrays some of the sadness felt beforehand. It’s clear there’s a lot of old pain being brought up throughout the record, but these first three songs feel like a perfect trio; a movement from shame and reclusion to anger and defiance that’s capped off with ‘Exit Signs’ having something of a mid-album realisation: “I’m still trying, I still believe in love. That might just be good enough”, matching strings and synths in wonderfully electronic harmony.
This fusion of folk and indie electronica isn’t anything new. Noah has constantly moved to experiment with this combination in his newer works and fans of his previous outing ‘Lovers’ will find much to enjoy as Gundersen has improved on all fronts in his implementation of these elements, with light and clear production that really lets these looser ambient songs shine through. Some of the more electronic-heavy tracks such as ‘Blankets’, whose synths mixed with an electronic trap beat bring a little bit of a future funk feeling to his sound, stick out a little bit, never feeling quite at home on a record that still draws a lot of its strength through its acoustic elements, something Gundersen has always excelled at (and continues to excel at) in this isolation record. ‘Atlantis’, featuring a duet with Phoebe Bridgers, is a strong example of this. Bridgers brings out even more of that folk that earned Gundersen his stripes, in a wonderfully nostalgic duet on young love and americana – “I learned about love in american cars”.
‘Magic Trick’ really does feel like a best of both worlds track, combining classically folk keys and guitar with some beautifully minimalist ambient backing. The lead single ‘Sleepless In Seattle’ feels like a climactic swelling of every worry that has presented itself in Noah’s previous tracks, all leading to a viciously melancholic summary of present life: “Right now it feels like last call on New Year’s Eve / And the bartender’s telling me to go”, while the booming drums of ‘Always There’ make for a climactic finish to what is frequently a surprisingly intense album. This second half of the album might be some of Gundersen’s most cohesive work yet, with little surprises in its production and lyrics that highlight how despite an year of isolation creating an album of reflection, there is still incredible growth and maturation to be found here.
Noah’s year of lockdown has resulted in perhaps his most cohesive fusion of folk, ambiance and electronic to date, an album of delicate reflection, of comforting memories and melancholic anecdotes that highlight Americana in isolation like only Gundersen can. It’s a hard time to stay resolute in yourself and your style, and to strengthen that resolve in the face of world altering events, but with a healthy dose of introspection, ‘A Pillar Of Salt’ does just that, and anchors itself in time as another classic folk record.