Katie Kim's latest album is her most dynamic to date.
As a young person, I believed for many years that the phrase “salt of the Earth” was a negative jab. The stinging and harsh connotations stuck out so sharply from the phrase as would salt water in your eyes. Yet with all its drab literary history from increasing the pain of wounds to wiping out fertile lands, the salt of the Earth remains a metaphorical reference to tenderness and compassion. The ability of these opposed connotations to coexist in one word is, to put it briefly, at the heart of the newest work from Irish songstress Katie Kim. Salt is the first proper full length from Kim since her 2012 magnum opus, Cover and Flood. While her dark, brooding piano songwriting remains at the core of this effort, the stadium-size of the songs turns her previous shyness into a brutalizing forward affront on sadness and decay.
The transformation of lo-fi gloomy songwriters to full-studio sound is a common one. While some like Regina Spektor and Zola Jesus have found this change as a speed bump to otherwise blooming songwriting careers, others like Fiona Apple have used it to their advantage to make their most phenomenal work. Where Salt falls in this history isn’t quite clear, but it’s obviously Kim’s most highly saturated album to date. The likeness to Zola Jesus is most prevalent throughout Kim’s song aesthetic, with blown-out electronic elements making punctuating appearances on the very first track. But immediately after, on the structural standout “Day is Coming,” Kim makes evident that her abilities to plunge her stark lyrics into lush multi-instrumental scaffolds rivals the best. Though Kim’s repetitions of the song title that close out its five-and-a-half minutes may sound optimistic on paper, her minor tones mirror a sense of dramatic irony that, in fact, day will not break through the album’s gray-skies atmosphere that hangs over its entire runtime. Surely the gray salty shores of Kim’s home, Ireland, would feel right at home.
This is an album that lives on the shoreline, following a current resonant of ocean waves. It draws back and then rushes forward, narrowing out to almost a whisper over its most delicate piano tracks only to be followed by a backbreaking tune such as “I Make Sparks,” where the droning electronics over menacing drums sound like a blow-out pop single being played through a table saw. Tracks like these are as if Lana Del Rey grew up about 10 hours north where the sun never shone and her sunny L.A. dates were replaced with rainy indoor loneliness. There are easily noticeable moments when the album’s massive production takes a turn for the overbearing or campy. But even on these tracks, Kim’s saving grace are her voice and lyrics. Her verses on devastating memories of witnessing death and being left behind are precise but never corny. By the time the album hits its low tide on the incredible final track, “Wide Hand,” it’s all too easy to forget oneself in the space between Kim’s verses and her minimalist approaches to piano repetitions. This space is Kim’s greatest forte, highlighted on even such a short interludes like “Someday” when she sings: “Even though I’m looking for it / I can see nothing.” It’s bleakness unbound, but it works in her framework. Kim keeps her legacy intact the best when she’s singing from a place where the line between nostalgia and despair becomes too blurred, leaving listeners in a gray area everyone can relate to all too well. Even in darkness there is a certain unique sensitivity, and by utilizing that so forwardly Kim has managed to make an album that is as striking as it is shy.
Listen to Katie Kim on bandcamp.
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Elijah Fosl is a freelance music and culture writer who's really bad at describing themselves. They hail from Louisville but live in Chicago where they work, ferociously devouring cassette tapes and local produce. Find them on Twitter at @elifosl or online at elifosl.com.