Sometimes you can lose something that is still right there in front of you. A city you called home; a person who once felt as close to you as the wind on your face; a chapter of your life that still seems fresh in your memory, even if it’s long gone. These are the people and places and things that seem to form the beating heart of Noah Gundersen’s sublime fifth album, called A Pillar of Salt. It’s an album about bright little lost things; about flickers of memory so vivid that they seem like they’re happening now; of recollections or fragments of dreams that hurt like a dagger in your side because they remind you how much things have changed. Gundersen has always been good at conveying that type of loss: Of writing songs about lost loves that feel like cigarette smoke in your chest, or of capturing the very rhythm of autumn in his words and music. But it’s possible he’s never assembled a set of songs as stunningly beautiful and as disarmingly visceral as the 11 tracks that make up A Pillar of Salt. It’s an album that blindsides you, and that might just leave you gasping for air. I have not been able to go more than 24 hours without listening to it since I first heard it three weeks ago.
Gundersen has always been a remarkable talent, but he’s also proved a restless one. Over the course of his first four albums (plus a few EPs and side projects) he struck the pose of an artist who couldn’t wait to move on to the next thing as soon as he finished recording the last thing. He could have made a name for himself as a rustic folk traditionalist if he’d made a few more albums in the vein of his full-length debut, 2014’s Ledges. Instead, he wandered down a road that found him making increasingly electric, eclectic, and experimental music. 2015’s Carry the Ghost burnished his folk sound with vivid bursts of electric guitar that hit like bolts of lightning. 2017’s White Noise burst at the seams with electronic elements, shades of Kid A-era Radiohead, Beatles-esque psychedelia, and massive arena-ready crescendos. And 2019’s Lover seemed to split the difference between Gundersen’s hushed singer-songwriter roots and a growing propensity for pop songwriting.
On White Noise and Lover in particular, Gundersen’s restlessness made for extremely exciting and moving music that didn’t always coalesce into fully cohesive albums. White Noise may have some of the most emotionally gripping songs Noah has ever written, but it also skips like a stone across so many different genres and sonic reference points that it never quite settles into a comfortable groove. Lover holds together better, but still leaves some jarring distance between the confessional ballads (“Robin Williams,” “Watermelon,” “Audrey Hepburn”) and the big, hooky pop songs (“Lover,” “Lose You,” “All My Friends”). I love both of those albums, but they each left me wondering if Noah would ever find a way to balance all the things he does well into an album that felt as complete and fully realized as Ledges and Carry the Ghost do.
A Pillar of Salt walks the tightrope between all of Noah’s strengths so confidently that it’s almost hard to believe the balancing act was ever anything less than effortless for him. Everything he did well on each of his previous albums is here somewhere, and it all meshes together into a perfect tapestry. The throwback troubadour of Ledges; the thoughtful intellectual of Carry the Ghost; the architect of all those big, bruising crescendos that drove White Noise; the pop polyglot of Lover: all these versions of Noah appear on A Pillar of Salt, but they all blend into the same person rather than appearing as different versions of Noah Gundersen across the course of the album. The result is the most cohesive album Noah has made since Ledges, and probably the best.
We’ve heard a fair few of these types of albums over the past few years, and they always hit the sweet spot for me. I’m talking about records that pair wintry singer-songwriter elements with the hooks and production flourishes of pop records. Take your pick of recent parallels like Taylor Swift’s evermore, Donovan Woods’ Without People, Field Report’s Marigolden, or Phoebe Bridgers’ A Stranger in the Alps. Those albums all combine extreme intimacy with songs that feel like they could scrape the cheap seats at an arena, and A Pillar of Salt does the same thing. The combination casts this album in a glow of outsized emotion, which is so potent on nearly every song that it can feel overwhelming.
I certainly can’t help but be overcome with sadness when listening to a song like the lead single “Sleepless in Seattle.” In that song, Noah wanders the titular city after dark, drunk and lonely, remembering the people he associates with each bar and each street he passes…people who aren’t there anymore. He’s gone on record saying the song is about the gentrification of Seattle and how it’s changed the complexion of his hometown and the types of people who can afford to live there now. You could also easily relate it to death, or to the way high school or college friend groups tend to scatter and disperse after their school years, or to the overwhelming dread brought by COVID-19 and how it’s made every pre-pandemic “normal” thing seem like a golden memory that won’t ever quite be recaptured. “Every bar in this city reminds me of somebody now,” he sings; “if I get drunk on 12th and Union, who’s street will I go wandering down?”
Those words, that song, this album, they are open wounds. Noah wrote most of the record – in the hallowed tradition of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago – in a remote cabin in the woods of Washington State. Unlike Justin Vernon, who was reeling from a broken heart, Noah was going off the grid to escape a mounting pandemic that had “made landfall” in his hometown of Seattle. Like the rest of us, he was knocked off his axis, trying to fill the hours and adjust to a new normal as the world outside crashed into turmoil and hysteria. “In the deepening silence, the whirlwind of the last decade finally caught up with me,” he says. “All the memories, the unresolved pain, the broken relationships. The fragments of a life constantly on the run. I was faced with the harsh reality of who I was without the validation of playing music.”
He continues: “For the first time there was nowhere to run, no plug to pull, no option for blowing up my life when the banality of existence triggered my anxiety into a blind panic. I was finally forced to face it. And in that space came these songs. Songs about memory, love lost, and love found, overcoming self-destruction, anxiety, saying goodbye. Attempting to break deep-seated patterns of co-dependency. Chasing the dragon of love’s first high.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder that A Pillar of Salt ends up feeling like a therapy session: Digging deep, pulling up the roots of past heartbreak or trauma, wandering the long, dark hallways of distant memory. In the Peter Gabriel-esque “Exit Wounds,” Noah likens those unexplored recesses of his mind to a hand grenade—one that he’s been clutching all his life, hoping it might never go off. Instead, he finally lets it explode. And so we get songs like “Atlantis,” a song about love that’s not quite like any love song I’ve ever heard, featuring a dynamite feature from Phoebe Bridgers. “I learned about love in American cars,” the two harmonize, recalling teenage backseat passion, before twisting the words into metaphor: “The rusted out frame and a lot of spare parts/There in the backseat, freezing cold/Just barely 17 years old/I saw the dragon and I gave chase/The perfect example of a hopeless case.”
But maybe it’s not hopeless. Maybe chasing after love and human connection is the only wellspring of hope we have. That’s how it seems on “Magic Trick.” In that song, Noah talks to a friend via FaceTime who jokes that “Watching people watch people is the future of our collective dream,” which brings to mind all those torturous work meetings you’ve spent on Zoom staring at little heads on a computer screen. We spent the 15 years leading up to COVID-19 letting ourselves believe that the internet was bringing us closer together as we drifted further and further apart. When left trapped in true isolation last year, we learned exactly what we were missing. “You tried building the tower of Babel/But it forgot your name/So you went insane,” Noah sings. A fucking reality check.
Noah has sung about this kind of modern disconnect before, on White Noise, so it’s not surprising that he would make arguably the quintessential quarantine album. A Pillar of Salt is a heavy listen, and even if you didn’t know when or how Noah crafted the songs that make up this record, you could probably catch the very-COVID-era sadness and dread that hangs over the proceedings. Joy is in short supply in these songs, and when it does crop up, it’s almost always comingled with pain. On “The Coast,” for example, Noah implores someone to break his heart, but also to “remember the good parts.” And on “Exit Signs,” even as he lets the grenade in his hand go off, he likens the process of burning down your own emotional walls to a teenage bonfire party, with all the implied celebration and reverie that such a connection elicits.
The one truly euphoric moment on this album arrives three songs from the end, in the form of “Bright Lost Things.” The song starts as a late-as-hell piano ballad, not dissimilar to “Passenger Seat” from Death Cab for Cutie’s 2003 masterpiece, Transatlanticism. But then it hits a massive crescendo, driven by a stream-of-consciousness lyrical flow that lifts the song like a hot air balloon:
And now when you sleep you dream
Of bright little lost things you left behind you
You don’t want ‘em back
You just like the feeling that you get when you remember
Falling in and out of love on late nights in the summer
Baseballs in gloves, and grass stains on your knees
Kissing in the rain in a Galaxie 500
Sneaking up the stairs while your parents are asleep
And bodies in beds, with names you can’t remember
The streets at 2am after closing down the bar
The way the day breaks from a rooftop in Brooklyn
Is the way the heart aches to know and to be known.
That section of lyrics, the first time I heard it, took my breath away. It’s the musical equivalent of crying through tears in the car as you drive away from your hometown for the first time on the way to college, remembering all the things you’re going to miss about the youth you’re leaving behind. “Nostalgia is a life raft when the world as you know it sinks,” Noah wrote as he released this album out into the world. “It’s also a shallow grave for ghosts better left buried.” Remembering these types of beautiful memories from the past, in other words, is a dangerous game—one that can make you feel happy for a moment and leave you aching with the grief of loss the next. But sometimes, there’s nothing more appealing than pouring yourself a whiskey and letting the ghosts haunt you for a moment. A Pillar of Salt is an album for those late, lonely nights full of memory and nostalgia and longing, and an album about how those nights can fix you and break you in half at the same time. And it’s a goddamn masterpiece.