Album Review: Angie McMahon - Salt

In the morning, after I’ve taken care of feeding our newly acquired cat Ted and rinsing, then replenishing, his water dishes, and after I’ve had at least one full cup of coffee, possibly a second one, I usually settle in for a short amount of time on the computer before I finish getting ready to go to work.

There is an order with which I begin internetting around—first, it’s email, and often I have no new message to check at, like, 5:15 a.m. Then, it’s onto social media—Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram, because I need to know if any of my posts from the day before were successful overnight.

Finally, it is onto music news and reviews.

Even with its decline in quality over the last few years, I have, despite my best efforts, been a Pitchfork faithful since I was introduced to the site by my ‘music friend’ in college, in 2004; from there, I move onto what I commonly refer to as ‘the poorman’s Pitchfork’—Stereogum. Why? I’m not sure. I have been reading the site since at least 2006, maybe even earlier, and while I am constantly amazed at just how awful some of the writing is, maybe I continue to read it because they will, occasionally, pick up on a story, or an artist, that other outlets might not.

The same can be said for the third site I check prior to closing the computer up and moving on with my morning—Consequence of Sound.

CoS is a catchall of sorts, often posting stories about more than just music, possibly in an effort to compete with The Onion’s ‘A.V. Club’ outlet. There are times when the writing on Consequence of Sound is also atrocious, and there are times where it seems like they write about Stephen King more often than anyone ever should, however, much like Stereogum, CoS will, every once in a while, point me in the direction of an album that I may have otherwise slept on.

Salt, the blistering, visceral, and haunted debut full length from Angie McMahon, is one of those albums.

McMahon appears unassuming on the cover for Salt. She sits, squinting at the sunlight, her hair a little messy, dressed in a pair of baggy overalls. Barely in her 20s, McMahon doesn’t so much ‘wear her influences on her sleeve,’ but her sound is one that owes a lot to the current zeitgeist of sad young women making guitar music—though at the same time, she brings a surprising exuberance as well as a palpable, and at times unnerving, sense of sorrow, that makes Salt a very immediate and very urgent album.

It also is an alarmingly bold, bombastic, cathartic statement for both somebody so young, and for a debut full-length, arriving mere months after the aptly titled A Couple of Songs EP, as well as two additional, advance singles from Salt.

McMahon’s charming Australian twang will draw comparisons, right out of the gate, to the Courtney Barnett. Both hailing from Melbourne, Barnett is less than a decade older; and aside from a slightly similar vocal range and cadence, and maybe a shared freewheeling affect, that’s where the comparisons should cease. Barnett’s music, while I am admittedly not very well versed in it, seems to have more of a sense of whimsy to it at times. McMahon is far from a humorless stiff though—she does rhyme ‘disaster’ with ‘kidney failure’ on “Pasta”—but her songwriting, as a whole, is much more pensive, nervy, and confessional.

Structurally, Salt is built around the idea of a simmering slow build—around a tension that grows with there being little, if any, release in the end. It makes for a brooding, fascinating listen from beginning to end, but it also means it’s the kind of record you must be patient with as the layers reveal themselves—even when the album’s pacing falters slightly on the second side.

With a heightened sense of reverb in the air, and a very real feeling of loneliness and melancholy, McMahon begins the album with “Play The Game,” a woozy, swaying slow dance that doesn’t so much set the tone for Salt, but it does slowly ease the listener into McMahon’s world. Recorded in such a way that you can, with even a cheap pair of headphones, hear the silence around her as she deliberately takes very measured and dramatic strums of the guitar, with the percussion in the background, eventually tumbling in, to keep a startlingly slow rhythm underneath.

It’s also on “Play The Game” that you can get a sense of McMahon’s vocal delivery and the way she plays with her range. She has a husky, ‘beyond her years’ voice—at times, reminiscent of Sharon Van Etten; and similarly to Van Etten, McMahon knows how to keep things loose and at times, a little careless, in the way she allows her voice to effortlessly drift through a song. “I don’t know how to play the game you say that we’re not playing, we’re not playing,” she sings in the song’s refrain—and as stark as it is, the melody is surprisingly infectious. “I’m not proud of all the loud things I’ve been saying—I lost my way inside our house.” And it’s on the word ‘all’ that McMahon allows her voice to dip down into a guttural, otherworldliness, just for that one word, because she brings it back up right after that—but in that little moment, and with that little flourish, you get the direction the album is capable of going on.

“Soon” has a little more momentum behind it than its predecessor, and it’s written and performed in such a way that reminded me of the enigmatic singer and songwriter Julie Byrne—the way the lyrics cascade against the finger plucked guitar strings, as well as the evocative imagery that McMahon uses. Though “Soon” becomes much louder than anything Byrne would more than likely record—on the song’s enormous refrain: “I’ve been hiding my tears from my mother and she and my father still laugh together—see I’d like to have real love someday,” she confesses.

McMahon’s confessional, honest, and reflective lyrics are what, more or less, makes this album—like, yes she has a very powerful voice and yes, the ramshackle indie rock quality of the instrumentation are also both great reasons to listen to Salt, but McMahon’s ability to tell a story and reflect upon herself, all while leaving things ambiguous enough is an incredible achievement.

McMahon spends a majority of the rest of the album’s first half doubling down on the energy—“Keeping Time,” an early single released in 2018 while she was still recording the rest of the record, out of any of Salt’s 11 tracks, screams ‘single’—from its processed drum loop opening that the rest of the instrumentation kicks into, as well as the caterwauling “I’ve done me harm” that punctuates the song’s self-deprecating refrain.

“Slow Mover” and “Missing Me” are where the album’s energy more or less peaks—a double shot of songs that showcase both McMahon’s cleverness as a lyricist, as well as her ability to write a pop song: “Slow Mover,” propelled forward by a shuffling guitar progression, takes off completely during the memorable refrain that continues to evolve slightly throughout the song’s narrative—“Maybe we’ll get married, maybe fall in love/Could you make me fall asleep when you’re holding me? Try set me on fire” she doesn’t so much ask but commands with earnestness.

“Missing Me” has a little bit more of a biting edge to it, opening with jittery and chugging guitar bursts, with McMahon snarling phrases like “Loving you has thrown me” and “Loving you is lonely.” On an album that tries to find the balance between tender and plaintive songs about wanting love, as wells weary and agitated songs about what happens when love ceases to be, “Missing Me” is, perhaps, the meanest of the bunch.

The album’s first side concludes with “Push,” perhaps the most emotionally theatrical of the bunch—on it, McMahon switches back to the slow simmer from earlier in the record, and the ‘pop song’ energy she tapped into disappears. Instead, through thunderous distortion on her guitar and percussive rumbles, “Push” resembles the kind of tight-rope walking between quiet and loud that Jeff Buckley would so carefully walk, especially in his visceral live performances.

The aforementioned “Pasta” opens Salt’s second half—a bit of an energetic jolt, swaying and even humorous at times, used as a method to grab attention—but following the shuffling groove of “Standout,” it becomes clear that Salt was frontloaded with all of its most energetic and accessible material. The album doesn’t become inaccessible, but things take a very dark and volatile turn on the aptly titled “Moody Song” and “And I Am A Woman”—the pacing slows down, and a long shadow is cast across what was already capable of being a very ominous record at times.

Salt concludes with “If You Call.” Recorded with the sound of traffic passing outside, and a very present reverberation on both McMahon’s haunted, anguished voice, as well as on the pensive strums of her acoustic guitar, the song is punctuated by long periods of whistling that arrive shortly after the pleading coming from the refrain. Normally, I am not particularly fond of whistling in a song—especially this much—but here, something about it works. Perhaps it’s the spectral and aimless nature of it, making the song’s structure looser than it would appear without; it serves as a calming juxtaposition to the larynx shredding howls McMahon lets rip throughout the song with a near reckless abandon.

Strangely enough, the LP version of Salt does not concluded with a short, hidden, epilogue to the album—but the digital version (and perhaps the CD too?) does—a hushed two lines, accompanied by acoustic guitar and even more sounds of traffic outside: “You are my new favorite lullaby game/when I can’t fall asleep—I type in your name.”

When Mitski’s Be The Cowboy arrived around a year ago, my conclusion was that it was a record that wasn’t full of love songs, but rather, songs about love—the good things, and the bad things, that come with the idea. The same could be said for Salt. Arrestingly good for a debut full-length, Salt is a charming collection that is spilling over with potential for McMahon’s future; but looked at simply as a singular piece of work, it takes a very stunning, blunt, and hyper-literate look at the concept of being young and falling in and out of love.

The conceit of the record, in a sense, could be summed up with lines from “Standout”—“I don’t want someone, I don’t want someone—but I do, yeah…I wanted you.”