Album Review: Ben Salter’s ‘twenty-one words for loss’ is a stark and elegant paean to transience and loss: as beautiful and raw as the land it was created in.


The Breakdown

'twenty-one words for loss' is a tremendous and rewarding journey: an exploration of the darkness and misery that will always beset the human condition, expressed with stark beauty and an ethereal luminescence. A work of art created in an institution for displaying works of art, it's a perfect display of a musician at his very best.
Independant 8.8

Hobart/nippaluna resident Ben Salter today releases his epic treatise on the topic of grief, loss and the vicissitudes of aging, ‘twenty-one words for loss’.

The entire album was conceived, written and recorded over two days in April earlier this year at Hobart’s landmark Museum of New and Modern Art (MONA) during Salter’s six month residency/installation. Salter says of the writing and recording process:

The album started as another writing exercise in the museum, one of many. I wrote down twenty-one (often quite obtuse) synonyms for the word “loss” on individual pages of a notebook and then scribbled down some lyrics for each, in a very stream-of-consciousness manner. Then I went through and composed and recorded each track very quickly, playing everything myself.

The only restriction was that the songs had to be around the 90 second mark, so the whole album only runs for 30 minutes or so. I did something like fifteen tracks on the first day and the remainder on the second.

The result is something quite magnificent. Ranging from sparse piano and string driven pieces, haunting and ethereal (‘defeat’ and ‘bereavement’), to raging droplets like ‘release’ which have an indie buzz and vibrant drive. ‘desuetude’ has a tribal beat and barbed-wire guitar. Forty seconds long, ‘hurt’ has an almost folkloric vibe with eviscerating lyrics. Traditional formed songs such as ‘dissipation’ with its gentle guitars and reflective nature put on show Salter’s melodic prowess.

Book-ended with the rolling ocean waves on a beach, and recorded in nipaluna/Hobart’s magnificent MONA, the single ‘bereavement’ encapsulates something of the natural beauty and rough-hewn chill of the southern isle. A brief but evocative piano piece, Salter’s voice is soft and almost broken, quietly reflective and imbued with a sense of loss and regret.

The video accompanying the track mirrors the stark simplicity of the track: ethereal, beautiful and Arctic with a open ended finale as Salter walks toward the water.

Salter’s style is never static or mundane – ‘separation’ for example has a motorik beat and syncopation, final track ‘loss’ has a Berlin Bowie theatricality: a Breschian waltz infused with yearning and, yes, loss.

Salter’s voice is exquisite – an Australian vernacular shines throughout and his delivery has the grace of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel at times. Pained, observational and touched at times with a self-deprecatory sense of humour. The recording venue at MONA imbues a certain detectable and looming presence: a stark concrete and dramatic monolith filled with beauty and ugliness, joy and despair but at all times creating emotions and awe. Just as ‘twenty-one words for loss’ does.

Indeed, the entire album captures a sense of place: lutruwita/Tasmania and its brutal colonial history crouched isolated at the very edge of the world with its impossible beauty and stark and often Antarctic chill, all coloured with Salter’s personal grief and naked and raw expression.

Ultimately ‘twenty-one words for loss’ is a tremendous and rewarding journey: an exploration of the darkness and misery that will always beset the human condition, expressed with stark beauty and an ethereal luminescence. A work of art created in an institution for displaying works of art, it’s a perfect display of a musician at his very best.

‘twenty-one words for loss’ is available through all the usual download/streaming sites or through the link below.

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