The warm, fingerpicked songs of Nathan Salsburg have always hinted at an obsession with history and tradition. For his first few albums, the Louisville musician expressed himself through solo acoustic guitar, an instrument that he plays with such a second-nature dexterity that it can feel like another appendage. Releases like 2013’s Hard For To Win and Can’t Be Won and 2018’s Third were elaborate, carefully picked bouquets of twirling steel-string harmony that often glowed with the hope of new beginnings and emanated the scent of dusty vinyl. It checks out: Salsburg is a historic preservationist who has now served as curator for the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity for over 20 years, presiding over the late ethnomusicologist’s early field recordings of folk music from around the world.
Last year, Salsburg pivoted, digging into his vast record collections for source material that would eventually become Landwerk and Landwerk No. 2. (“Otherwise they’d just sit around on the shelves,” he said). The two companion albums were built from looped snippets of old 78-rpm records, largely of Yiddish and klezmer music, which Salsburg then gently augmented with his own guitar, playing circular phrases and immersing himself in the auras of the antique fragments. Psalms, his latest release, also adheres to a specific concept, but a bolder one: These 10 songs are almost entirely based on Hebrew psalms from the Old Testament, with music composed by Salsburg over the past five years and recorded last year with a band that includes Spencer Tweedy on drums, as well as Will Oldham and Salsburg’s partner and frequent collaborator Joan Shelley on backing vocals.
Similar to the Landwerk project, Salsburg dives into a specific time and place on Psalms, one that traces to some part of who he is today, turning to his guitar as a sort of notepad. But here, he swaps out the mystery evoked by decontextualized samples for the mystery of his own faith. Salsburg, who says he occasionally felt alienated by the culture of his religious upbringing and has recently grown closer to Judaism on his own terms, envisioned this project as another way to comfortably engage with his religion. It succeeds in familiar ways: Salsburg lets us in on his refreshingly genuine reactions to his journey, sounding every bit as meditative as you might expect, often centered. It’s a fairly niche project, and its parameters are rigid, but it can also be deeply comforting in both its reverent, focused intent and candlelit atmosphere.
Salsburg sings on nearly every track—a rare occurrence in his catalog—and mostly in Hebrew. He chose most of these passages by flipping through a bilingual Book of Psalms and trying out the phrases that struck him, many of which are praises to Hashem’s compassion, natural-world wonders, or in several cases, the act of singing itself. He shows off a grizzled but delicate baritone, calming with just a hint of pitchiness—the perfect amount to affirm that a great natural singing voice is no prerequisite for singing, much less singing hymns.
Structurally, Psalms sticks to familiar territory. Some tracks, like opener “Psalm 147,” fall into the looped-cell rhythms of Landwerk, while others, like the subsequent “Psalm 19,” feature several independent verses and sections. Both styles can work, and Salsburg sequences Psalms so that it traverses moods and cadences. There are stretches of solemn tension followed by ones of plain beauty and relief. On “Psalm 104,” Salsburg’s acoustic guitar scurries through a soothing waltz that simmers like an aromatic stock, modestly seasoned to proportion by a piano accompaniment from longtime friend James Elkington. It’s the album’s peaceful calm before the (very gentle) storm of its crest, “O You Who Sleep,” the only English-sung track and non-psalm on the album, dedicated to the late David Berman of Silver Jews, who himself once documented his own mid-adulthood reconnection with Judaism. It’s a moving tribute, an appropriate moment for Psalms to cross into folk-rock for the first and last time.
Hearing Salsburg sing and play through the lens of religion—one specific part of his identity—doesn’t carry the same weight as the more holistic self-portraits of his early solo work or the novel archival dives of Landwerk. But it also touches a part of his soul that those prior albums couldn’t: the part that developed when Salsburg was a child, singing Jewish music in the stained-glass-filtered sunlight of his Louisville synagogue, overcome with intangible joy. For some who have known that feeling, it can become more elusive with time. Like a cantor’s voice resonating through the front doors to a house of prayer, Psalms invites you to come inside, take a seat, and rest in the friendly pews of its sanctuary.
Buy: Rough Trade
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