To talk about Angie McMahon baring herself, making everything here an exposure of some or other vulnerability, is to inflate and at the same time diminish what’s going on in this compelling debut album.
Vulnerability is hardly new as a calling card, especially if you’re a solo indie artist, where it’s fair to say it is almost a requirement. It’s as if stripped of any demand that they fit in neatly between the ads on commercial radio, male and female singer/songwriters are expected to present scarred arms, wrecked hearts and confounded minds, rather than ebullient songs, as proof they are “genuine”.
Also not new is that the basis of the vulnerability generally is the slings and arrows of (forget outrageous, let’s call it) absolutely shit fortune in matters personal. These folks don’t really do well do they? You and I – and they - know that on the basis of the songs we hear, if we ever were presented with a chance to cohabit with a singer/songwriter we’d be either sociopathic (“you want pain? I’ll give you pain!”) or had a romantic death wish.
Given all this, why does Salt feel like something more and less than those clichés? Because McMahon can write a decent song, yes: melodies work, rhythms are not prominent, and sometimes only hinted, but catch on. And the sound of the album, focuses attention on one or at most two elements in any song so when those work, as they pretty much all do, you can’t miss the appeal.
But mainly it’s because McMahon feels true. Not just to the sentiment but to the heart of each of these stories and songs.
When she says, in the opening of Missing Me, “loving you has thrown me/Loving you is lonely”, there’s a streak of surliness more than defeat in the frankness, and the accumulation of her ex-lover’s faults (the swagger, the attention grabbing, the chatter) hits the perfect unexpected note when she snarls “I’m so sick of your photographs”. The chop of the guitar, the stroppiness of the rhythm, drill the disdain home.
But sneaking up on us - and on her you suspect - there’s the half dismissive/half needy exhalation of “you better be missing me”, a line which vibrates, disappears for a minute, only to return, repeat itself, and take over. You can almost feel the deep, purple bruise.
That’s so simple, but so brutally effective in capturing the anything-but black and white truth. As is a kind of flipside immediately afterwards as Push takes a Jeff Buckley-like ragged need into territory where you might expect McMahon to soar from the low valley where we entered, electric guitar like an equally unsteady companion walking alongside.
However, the need curdles in the heat and glare, the guitar now the sceptic in her ear essentially saying ‘see, I warned you, this is only pain’, and McMahon shoves this lover in the chest, cranks the guitar to irritation and demands “push me over the line, and I’ll save us some time”. You might almost believe her that destruction is better than withering.
It helps that McMahon’s voice, a kind of hoarse and slightly coarse low one that speaks of more experience than she could/should have this early, all but demands acceptance as a truth-teller. Or truth-devourer in the loosened control of And I Am A Woman.
It makes the clichés of the jagged solo guitar or the rumble in the distance tom-toms feel more like necessary punctuations, and hides some of the more formulaic constructions. It adds heft to grimly defeatist lines such as “we sometimes fit, but we always lie/He thinks we could make it work but only when he’s drunk/And you think you could help me swim, but I’ve already sunk”.
It holds time in its old folksinger hands through If You Call, and when, as in Pasta, McMahon ups the energy alongside a full bar band hustle, it feels like a rider and not just a walker, pursuing the song; while in the shuffle-slink of Standout it has a kind of Joan Armatrading brusque soulfulness setting the direction as well as the tempo.
The album ends with McMahon declaring that “I’m putting down the habit, that habit of looking back on all of it and wishing I had done better”. It’s a fine idea, and given the scars shown here, a necessary one. But I doubt it.
I mean, it would be great for her, sure, yet not even she would bank on introspection, second-guessing and self-reform being done with yet. The evidence here, the truth here, suggests otherwise.