Minister and folk poet creates songs of hope in a lonely wilderness.
One of the most beautifully packaged albums I can remember, ‘Saltings’ is a songbook with illustrations by artist Tom Knight to reflect the lyrics of his friend Matt Simpkins, an honest-to-God (sorry!) active minister, priest in charge of St Leonards Church in Lexden, Colchester. He is also a former rocker who turned to the ministry after a stint with a regional band called Fuzzface. ‘Saltings’ is his second lockdown album, after ‘Big Sea’, a similarly packaged album describing his fight with skin cancer. His latest album (described in the press release as a cross between eccentric folk and Americana) is a paean to the wild salt marches in his native Essex, one of the last wilderness places in England, where he went to meditate on the human condition and how his community was affected during the pandemic, and where he drew inspiration to write songs about real people interspersed with reflections on mysterious historical figures from the region’s past.
The results are fascinating. Simpkins is a multi-instrumentalist, playing predominantly banjo (which dominates the instrumentation) and viola, with background flavourings of harmonium and synthesiser and occasional drums, and additional French horn from Sian Simpkins. His daughter Martha provides excellent vocals and the whole is lovingly produced by Simpkins himself. He has a haunting voice, used to great effect on some very atmospheric songs, with messages of hope in dark times, as in ‘For Every Number’, “sing with me to remember, sing with me to forget, sing from hope not regret”, a beautiful chorus with lovely harmonies. The dark times are highlighted in ‘Ghost Harmonies’, about the loneliness for many in lockdown, “hand shadows hand pressed to cold windowpanes, salted eyes meet through glass, love brought us near, that same love keeps us apart, fingertips slide away numbed”.
The tracks are littered with metaphors for saltings, as in ‘Gathering Grounds’ a rather wonderful song about the ancient springs in Simpkins’ parish which supplied fresh water until quite recently; “there springs pure water to soothe salted eyes, all absence is absent where love never dies”. Tears play an important part in the songs, and not just tears of sadness.
Although his voice is haunting, and strong, sometimes he strays off-pitch to my ears. The first track is an example and the track itself seems a little off-sync with the rest of the album. And occasionally he strains and puts too many words in a single line and rushes them through to the end of it. But you cannot help admire the feelings he evokes for the wilderness he reflects in the songs, the love and care for his community during the last two dreadful years, and the effort that has gone into the production of both the music and the accompanying book. This is an album worth exploring. Don’t expect to get it first time round, but ‘Saltings’ will reward you many times over with repeated listens.