Album Review: Noah Gundersen – Carry the Ghost
Noah Gundersen is one of this site’s favorites, so it stands to reason that the official ETTG review of Noah’s latest release will be overwhelmingly positive. Carry the Ghost has done the impossible, bringing even more emotion than Gundersen’s earlier work. After Ledges received rave reviews, it seemed that Carry the Ghost would be destined to come up as so many sophomore offerings do – just a bit short. But instead, Gundersen found something deep within himself and pulled out another phenomenal, jarring, evocative, and deeply-moving album.
From the opening piano of “Slow Dancer” the album takes on a different feeling. Sometimes positively cinematic, other times staid and intimate, Gundersen unpacks the emotions of his life as he lives them. There are deep, personal feelings poured out in poetic line after line.
“Under my halo I had trouble seeing clear…” is the amazing first line of “Halo (Disappear/Reappear)” a track clearly influenced by his Seattle surroundings. Influences from Nirvana and Pearl Jam are as palpable as any song in Gundersen’s discography. He even gets a little aggressive, shedding the stripped down singer songwriter visage for a ripped-open, bleed-on-the-stage rawness true to his grunge ancestors. It’s a soul expository and it’s gloriously distorted.
The best track on the album, to me, is “Selfish Art.” Maybe I just like classic Noah Gundersen, but it’s the kind of song that conjures up exactly what we love about him. It’s authentic and tender, while being about more than the words to the song. Even those of us who are not touring musicians, singing to hundreds each night across the country, can relate to the desire to be “the spark in someone’s eye.” How many other jobs can people ask, “am I giving all that I can give? Am I earning the right to live? By looking in the mirror there’s nothing more sincere than selfish art.” Whew, that hits deep. The track’s minimalist aesthetic is welcome and fitting.
“Show Me the Light” has a western influence and the guitar work is great. The opening references to listening to Dylan and learning the craft of songwriting is really perfect. The atmospheric organ is absolutely awesome. I never really thought that the Gundersen sound needed to add anything, but this organ is a beautiful touch. “I watched you watching Jesus…” starts a verse that answers a lot of the questions Gundersen has been very publicly addressing since his debut EPs. In fact, his questioning of his former faith is one of the things that continually draws people to his writing. He’s just real. “Show me the light” expresses, as a repeated refrain, a desire to be taught, told, or shown something more. But what works best about the song is that it just feels so real, like John Fullbright’s “I Only Pray at Night,” that you can’t help but believe every word of it. Ironic, I suppose.
“The Difference” and “Silver Bracelet” occupy the same kind of soul-searching genuineness of other tracks on the album. It’s as if Gundersen was advancing one major thesis that he wants to make sense of his life in more tangible, palpable way. “Back before the money took its toll… back before the rhythm lost its soul” is one of the lines on “Silver Bracelet” that cues us into his thinking, but it’s still not exactly clear if the song is even true. Does he regret the road and the life he leads? I rather think not. Maybe it’s fiction. But maybe it’s something within him that calls him back. And, not to draw from a music video too much, but I think the visualization of “The Difference” might answer that question for us. What pulls him away from the road and the life that it promises is real friends back home and maybe – without saying specifically – one specific person.
If I jump back out of lyrical conjecture for a moment, the following “I Need a Woman” lays heavy on the keys. It’s a song written about the longing that many can relate to and the complex interrelationship between self confidence and belonging. I love the style and substance of it. Honestly I could have been cut on a Paul Simon or Neil Young album forty years ago. That’s about the highest praise I could bestow on a folk singer songwriter, but it’s true.
“Jealous Love” has a real David Ramirez feel to it. I know the two artists are friends, but I don’t know if they worked together on this one. It sure sounds like it. From the rhythm to the structure of the backing vocals it all feels very familiar. That said, it also sounds like it could have come off of Ledges, too. It’s upbeat and sincere. And although it’s just as deep and moving as the other tracks on the album, there’s something about the sing-able nature of the chorus that makes it feel a little more approachable.
“Empty from the Start” goes back to the acoustic simplicity that is, often, Noah Gundersen at his finest. From the first line of the song, I want to hear this one live. It’s some of the purest “folk” writing he’s done yet. Again he’s reflecting on his former faith and contemplating deep meaning. The harmonies provided by Abby Gundersen add to the gentleness of the track. “This is all we are; blood and bones, no Holy Ghost, all empty from the start. There’s nothing you can do honey that would save me.” Heart wrenching. Of course Noah flips it from being some sort of melancholy, depressing song into something about being selfless and deeply, sincerely loving (by putting the person it’s written to first in his life and priorities). It’s both sweet and heartbreaking.
“Blossom” uses an electric guitar and Noah’s honest vocals to express more profound truth. Along with “Heartbreaker,” the two tracks have an uncanny ability to conjure up a sort of understated angst about the imperfections of people to love perfectly.
“Topless Dancer” is another song with a real David Ramirez feeling. But the best part is absolutely the way Gundersen’s melody line crawls up and down a minor scale. The lyrics are captivating, drawing the listener into every perfectly-delivered line. It’s one of the songs on the album that show listeners what a fantastically gifted songwriter Noah really is. It’s about shame and forgiveness surrounding lust and sexuality in a way that, frankly, no songwriter has addressed in such a forthright way. It’s unsettling and terribly important.
The final track “Planted Seeds” leads nicely into my parting analysis of the album. This is phenomenal. This is undeniable, need-to-hear-it, one of the best songwriters of our generation – IMPORTANT album. It has social consciousness and real human depth dripping from every song. There are not only know “skip” tracks, but also no skip elements to the whole thing. “It’s the waiting hours that hold you up like a clock and show you what you are – the wreckage of a tree, the hope for faster speeds, and the weight of all the world.” This is a song written by a pure songwriter about the market and busy-ness in a way that calls for conviction and change. If you’re weeping by this point in the album, you’re not alone.
Support Noah. Hear him live. Do not miss this album or these songs. He is an icon and the songs mark a moment.