Simon Balto is a singer songwriter who, like several of our favourite artists, is originally from Wisconsin but now resides elsewhere in the US. That said, Balto returned to his home state to record his new album, Murmurations, which he says is, “at its core…about living, struggle, love, and loss in the Midwestern United States”. This translates into a blend of heartfelt folk and country, that balance between small town Midwest grit and helpless poetic romanticism. Add the fact that the songs are fleshed out by players from Field Report, Aero Flynn and The Tallest Man on Earth touring band, and you’ve got all the ingredients of a great record.
Opener ‘Foothills’ sets the tone, an emotive and contemplative alt-folk song that sounds like a chill in the air, like the smell of wood smoke on the wind. At its heart it’s a love song, although delivered not from the blushing early stages like many romantic songs, but rather much later.
“I’ve never been a faithful man
I’ve always been too proud to pray
But won’t you come out to the foothills
And hold me together for one more day”
‘Disappearing Act’ is a well-written tale of the aforementioned love and loss, of turning to drink and wandering to overcome thoughts of someone who has “been coming back in focus lately / resurrecting bones from graveyard ash”. Whether that line is literal or metaphorical seems besides the point, the depth of feeling is considerable regardless. ‘Revelation Road’ is the perfect track for the oncoming autumn, as Balto sings “Thunder clouds are rolling through the heavens over Revelation Road / pirouette the leaves from off the branches cascading rust and gold”.
‘Midwest Elegy’ is just that, an ode to a region hung out to dry, a grandfather whose farm was run out of business by the big guys, a father made strong from 25 years on the engine block line at General Motors only to find himself out of work after the recession. It’s just one example of that confronts a major theme in Simon Balto’s music – a sense of loss, be it in terms of livelihoods or actual lives.
You may have also noticed that Simon Balto is the kind of songwriter whose lyrics you want to quote. Like on ‘True North’, a love song rich with natural imagery, where he sings “Amongst cicadas and the whispering pines / you tangled your bony fingers up in mine”, or on the sorrowful ‘Dark Burns’, where, backed with woozy harmonica he sings, “If the dark burns like cigarettes on the body / goddamn, I’m sorry for the things I couldn’t do / with every heathen’s breath buried here in my chest / I will pray my best for you to get good again”.
The title track closes the album, a song that sounds like it’s beamed from a classic folk record of a bye-gone age. The image of a great twisting cloud of starlings sits at the forefront of a track that’s suffused with a real sense of melancholy but also hope, the narrator praying that the birds guide a passing loved one to their next destination.
“And on the bright day when it comes your time to go
I hope your heart breaks into starlings that’ll carry you home
And murmur you on out to where the north wind softly blows
I hope your heart breaks into starlings when it’s time for you to go”
Even if you’re not from the Midwest, or even from the USA, it’s likely you will relate to some of the issues that Simon Balto confronts on Murmurations. The struggle to get by in small towns in an age where power and wealth is increasingly confined to big cities, where traditional, community-supporting businesses are collapsing as the world gets better connected and the banks gamble away our money. But the album doesn’t come off sounding like a protest. Balto still sees enough beauty in the everyday, in the changing of the seasons and the faces of loved ones, to deal with these struggles with stoicism and hope. The thoughts and ruminations here are rooted in the personal, in all the wishes and fears that make us uniquely human.
You can get Murmurations now from the Simon Balto Bandcamp page.