On “Salt,” Ben Cosgrove explores the relationship between human emotions, like uncertainty and instability, and the natural world through swelling, spare piano.
We say that life imitates art, and nowhere is that more evident than on Ben Cosgrove’s Salt. The songs are inspired by shifting, uncertain landscapes — environments Cosgrove felt connected to while navigating similar mental terrain. Despite the fact that his music forgoes lyrics, it all becomes deeply personal when the instrumentation is informed by an emotion or state of mind Cosgrove seeks to explore. Salt is the human condition set to gorgeous, lush piano.
Cosgrove began writing the album following a deeply felt break-up, saying it was difficult for him to focus on his work. “I was writing all these musical fragments, but couldn’t really get them to coalesce into complete songs, and I wasn’t even sure what many of them were about,” he said. “For a while I just felt totally at sea, just spinning around, as though the ground were moving constantly and I didn’t know where I could plant my feet.”
So he wrote what he knew: he began associating his feelings with landscapes that evoked a similar experience—”places where the shape of the ground changes regularly”—and eventually went to experience them in person. “By focusing so closely on places that held their identity even as characteristics as essential as whether or not they were underwater were changing all the time,” Cosgrove said. “I found a kind of stability that I could aspire to myself, even as it felt like my life was falling apart. It feels weird to say, but writing this album really repaired me in a lot of important ways.”
“Champlain” eases open the album with soft, sustained chords that swell and recede much like the tide. The whispers of a voice reading a poem faintly intertwine with the piano, words inaudible but adding an electric, thin layer of sound. Cosgrove said he placed the poem in places he wanted to inspire a sense of disorientation and instability. The poem is “The Slip” by Wendell Berry. “[It] compares the natural collapse and rerouting of a river to recovery from an emotional wound; its themes/metaphors are really strongly in line with what I was going for with Salt,” he said. The piano builds underneath this, before pulling back to the softness it opened with.
“When you’re out there, exposed and cold, you have this feeling in the back of your mind that although the surface you’re standing on seems solid, and the scene is stark and beautiful, it’s really impermanent and dangerous,” he said of the eponymous Lake Champlain.
Though there are no words to guide listeners through each track, there’s a clear sense of narrative throughout Salt. The transitions between songs feel seamless, as though we’re simply stepping from one landscape and into another. Cosgrove said that he doesn’t write lyrics because it’s simply not how he thinks, and it also allows him to express abstract thoughts—like landscapes—that words can’t properly capture. “It forces me to think really critically and carefully about how a certain physical environment makes me feel, what it reminds me of, and what those things have in common that could be meaningfully expressed by a set of musical sounds,” he said.
The repetition of certain melodies and melodic patterns helps carry the listener through as well—“Pine” borrows some of the churning, building piano riffs from “Champlain,” which appear again in “Slip.” But each time Cosgrove returns to it, it’s both familiar and slightly different—perhaps at a faster tempo or with light percussion underscoring it. “It’s important to me that an album be a world unto itself that a listener can wander in and out of, and part of that means that all of its songs should be interrelated and have something to say to each other,” Cosgrove said. Outside genre names, he described his music — as he experiences it — as “little poems without any words.”
While most of the tracks on Salt use complex piano riffs, “Let” is refreshingly spare. Its placement in the middle of the album offers welcome respite from the foreboding sense gained from its predecessors. That’s not to say the former half of the album is overwhelming; it accomplishes the task of capturing the feeling of tumultuous landscapes. And “Let” is the calm before the storm. Cosgrove plays a simple, wandering melody that bursts bright at certain parts and recedes, muted at others. It’s a moment of reflection and peace.
Cosgrove’s command of the piano transforms it into something active and captivating. Where he could leave a song to a melody and some bass notes he adds in little complexities that tighten each one. No note is out of place—every little arpeggio or accidental (despite the technical term) feels purposeful. They play in harmony with the main melody, giving it a more robust body.
“Kennebec” is the penultimate song on Salt but certainly not the smallest. Aside from light percussion throughout the album, “Kennebec” is the only song that features an instrument other than the piano. The rippling melody Cosgrove plucks on the guitar gives the song movement. Decisive anchor notes are strummed, punctuating each riff and propelling it into the next line. “Kennebec” evokes the sense of movement; aptly named after a river in Maine. Along with “Champlain,” these are the only tracks directly referencing a landscape by name. This adds a sense of importance to the song, noting that while “Oxbow” is meant to evoke the feeling of the geographic feature in general, “Kennebec” is rooted in that particular river. “I was hoping to grant the record this kind of apotheosis in which the listener suddenly gets lifted up and out of the sonic world that had been established over the course of the previous tracks,” Cosgrove said of the guitar on “Kennebec.”
Salt closes with “Glass,” a song that almost feels like one prolonged, modulated note. It’s subdued, but there isn’t a moment that breaks for silence. Throughout Salt we’re offered small pauses, tiny moments of no sound that feel monumental when inserted into the grand instrumentation Cosgrove creates. But “Glass” doesn’t need relief; in its insistence lies uncertainty, the microcosm of emotion Cosgrove is striving to capture on Salt. A single drawn-out note decrescendos into nothing offering the simultaneous sense of finality and infinite possibilities.
Watching him play offers greater insight into how much of himself Cosgrove puts into his music. He leans into each note, his fingers fluttering across the keys with utter certainty.