Ben Salter: Back Yourself

- Ben Salter’s career to date (I’m sure there’s a lot more of it to come) is such an octopus of a thing. If you can do it with a band, Salter’s almost certainly done it. It’s one of the few ways to sum up his work. It’s a legacy of relentless energy. I was trying to find a way to put all of it together -all that he’s done- and I recalled his earliest days, busking every night, wall-to-wall Beatles covers in the Queen Street Mall. Now as back then he just keeps coming back, again and again. Pair that with Salter’s hangdog expression and often insightfully, crushingly depressing lyrics, it make his dogged determination that much more poignant. Every time you hear him it’s like how have you even survived? If all of these things are Ben Salter, then it turns out that his new record, Back Yourself, is another surprisingly good way to sum him up. Everything that he is seems to have found it’s way in.

First cut Where Corals Lie, won’t give you any idea of the expansiveness that lies ahead, of course. A setting of a poem by Nineteenth Century US poet Richard Garnett, it’s pretty typical of Salter’s solo work: acoustic singer-songwriter fare, laced with that signature, Salter depression. Enigmatic but elegant, it’s finally a tentative gesture. I suppose it sets you up for a sucker-punch from Salter’s recent single, Isolationism.  It’s the kind of cheap, sarcastic shot at a big, luscious song that only Salter could make. How about that drum machine? Still, it works because Salter is so adept at bringing together beautiful rock-pop and profound cynicism, fusing the two into a hotshot of existential dread. Oddly, almost against its own intentions, the emotional arc of the song seems, finally, to crash land in optimistic territory. “Oh lover, you’ve saved me, you’re all there is now.” It’s -at the same time- a little affirming and a little unnerving, as though Salter wants to write something anthemic, but can’t let himself be so guileless. That gentle battle between genuine emotional warmth and Salter’s more instinctive melancholy eddies across this record. Here it sounds like the ghostly, dusty ‘80s Oz rock of Hunters & Collectors or The Church, haunted and heartwarming at the same time.

Nazi Paraphernalia, should really be another single. Unlike most of Salter’s solo work it reminds you that he’s made some pretty hard-ass rock’n’roll in his time. Full of desperation and disbelief, a lyrical confrontation with some of the bigger idiots who’ve landed the world in its present political mess, it is delivered in an appropriately incendiary musical ordnance: somewhere between QOTSA and, I dunno, Helmet? Or you could just say it’s one of the better Giants Of Science songs you’ve heard.

First sign of Madness recalls some of the off-the-wall musical guest-spots of Ben’s solo high water mark, The Cat. An entirely adequate slice of wry, acoustic rock is lifted in its final section by chiming guitar effects and an unreasonably glorious sax solo to drive home the typically Salterian lesson: accept it, take it easy, you’re already screwed.

The album’s title-track more explicitly engages in that battle between Ben’s warring emotions. A burst of optimism to beat down the incessant, cloying sensation of failure. “...what if I never acquire the objects of adolescent desire? An apartment in the city. Any apartment. Any city.” Brutal and all too familiar to those who rely on music for a living I suppose. The lyrics are quite abstract and philosophical, but the song itself delivers a big, anthemic hug of a chorus: “Pull yourself together / Back yourself!” even if Salter is clearly struggling to believe it.

There’s another surprise in the big, simple and soulful blues of I Need You. A gaping admission of personal vulnerability, it feels a bit like the opposite of the blues classic, The Thrill Is Gone. Instead of pulling away, Salter is dumping all his weakness on his lover’s doorstep. Pretty self-indulgent, but both musically and emotionally, surprisingly effective.

The album’s final two cuts offer an interesting counterpoint. Spitting Imagery offers a morbid assessment of Salter's mindset: “I slank away. I should say, I've terrified myself. In the alcoves speculating endlessly.” At the end of the song this “glib life of leisure” affords Salter what he calls “A smooth journey to heaven for me.” The way he sings it though, it sounds more like a suicide note. Finally we come to End Of Days: for such a portentous title, it’s actually quietly tuneful and relaxed, ambient pop. Even after that last number Salter is still, at this late stage, trying to nail down just how he feels. This is like an alternative ending, almost, because here it’s not traumatic. Once again it’s about accepting that you’ve had it and maybe that’s not so bad: “...baby are we living through the end times? If so I just wanna know, your place or mine?”

The final, emotional uncertainty is just about the most upbeat sentiment I can remember hearing from Ben Salter and it fits neatly with the clear energy and inspiration of the record. For a man who’s art thrives on adversity, it’s clear that in the face of apocalypse he’s found an opportunity. In his unique manner he is indeed backing himself, more convincingly than in years.

- Chris Cobcroft.

 

Album Details

Album Title: Back Yourself
Artist: Ben Salter
Record Label: (ABC / Universal)