Salt by Katie KimRelease date: October 14, 2016
Have you ever had the ‘Blink’ moment? That moment when you just know… It’s so much more than just a gut feeling, but rather a sensory snapshot of utter certainty; the instant when you absolutely, irrefutably, indubitably understand something is right… until the conscious mind stumbles in demanding its supper, and distracts you.
Just occasionally, I chance upon voices that can make me ‘blink’ like that: I remember the moment Kate Walsh knocked me senseless; how Hannah Reid didn’t just tingle my spine, but removed individual neck vertebrae; and, more recently, the paint-stripping, emotional colonic that is Anna Von Hausswolff.
And now it’s happened again, because 30 seconds into ‘Day is Coming’, the second track on Katie Kim’s astonishing album Salt, I blinked my senses into suspension, and twenty minutes of my life simply disappeared.
It was a special moment, made all the more remarkable by the seeming unremarkability of her voice: it doesn’t have the background sob of Rachel Davies or the angelic purity of Marjana Semkina; and though her music is clearly influenced by them, it doesn’t puncture your heart like Chelsea Wolfe or octave-slide effortlessly like Emma Ruth Rundle. Yet somehow, this voice, like some doomy, drawly, downtuned Julia Holter, is utterly mesmeric.
Katie Kim is an Irish Siren: an enchantress, enticing you from safe harbour and drawing you towards the rocks, before casting you adrift in an uncertain sea and a dark horizon. Her lyrics tease you, dancing on the breeze just long enough for you to taste the salt, before the crosswind snatches them away. Emotionally, she torments you; at first, nagging and nibbling at your toes like hungry fishes, then pushing your head under a wave until you’ve gulped down enough seawater to force you into some kind of delirium. Salt is an album to drown in.
And it’s also an album to make waves about: an album that has a rare elemental beauty, focussing as it does on love, loss and longing – the salt of life, if you like – through nine songs by turns passionate, poetic and mysterious, set to an ethereal, ambient soundtrack teetering on the edge of darkness.
Though not quite minimal, the music is also suitably lo-fi and elemental; almost every track starting with a gentle guitar arpeggio or a rudimentary piano pattern before building on layers of drone, noise and (very occasionally) drums that are as perfectly judged as the coda that follows. Beautifully simple, and beautiful.
And though every song stands alone, the complementary ordering of the tracks is such that there’s an incredible dynamic to be experienced in playing the album in one sitting. By turns arresting and astonishing, ‘Body Break’ confronts a death (possibly suicide) with “You were cold, lying adorned / With a crown above the door / And I wasn’t grieving”, but is preceded by an intimate interlude, ‘Someday’, that is delightfully naïve – the piano-in-the-street stuff of Once and Kim’s native Dublin.
Bookended by the unashamedly anthemic ‘Ghosts’ and the intriguing ‘Wide Hand’, every track on the album can lay claim to being a standout. At the core, ‘I Make Sparks’ is beautiful example of how her soundscape has developed. Until recently, this was an unplugged staple, with up-close vocals and only a guitar and a pedal for company. Here, it is considerably expanded, with producer John Murphy masterfully adding echoic, electronic layers. And what it loses in the directness of the vocals it more than gains in the extraordinary ambience of the finale, where wailing synths create a desperate backdrop for the dripping-tap madness of post breakup.
But for me, the absolute Siren call is ‘Day is Coming’, which paints an unbalanced and (seemingly) abusive relationship in the starkest of blank verse: “I was the light / I was the storm / The one who got you open / Got you clean / The one who dressed your wounds at night” it begins, before turning a shade more sinister with, “I’m bleeding but I’m healthy / It’s aesthetic / The bones with which I’m walking /Are now wrestled to the ground / I am carrying a torch / But with the light I cannot see”.
These are more than lyrics – they are as personal and permanent as tattoos; I can sense the pain in every inked-in syllable, and feel the sting in every pin-pricked note. Lingering and languorous, ‘Day is Coming’ is the perfect, haunting blend of soul and sampler.
From Waterford to the Waterboys, three albums and a film score, Katie Kim has accomplished much for her relatively young years; but Salt sees a visionary singer-songwriter at last set loose in a properly expansive landscape. It’s an outstanding achievement.
As writers, we are constantly discouraged from hyperbole; instructed to resist, at all cost the rash prediction of ‘a star is born’ or the with-hindsight shame of ‘groups with guitars are going out of fashion’. But somehow, simply saying that Salt is one of my Records of the Year barely does it justice.
I’ve ‘blinked’ once, I’ve ‘blinked’ twice, and I know what I know. For Katie Kim the day is coming… and that day is now.