Noah Gundersen is one of our favorite artists at EarToTheGround, so when we heard about this new album we jumped at the chance to cover it. The sound that Gundersen continues to produce – and develop – is fascinating to say the least. While some of his loyal folk fans might find the album to be a divergence, others will see it as the logical progression of a talented artist. I am more negatively critical of this album than any other in Gundersen’s discography, but there are a few songs on this album that are absolutely stunning and the second half of the album is an absolute treasure.
It all started, for me, with the obscure promotional photographs. There was Gundersen, looking unkept yet made up like a rock star, with a snake. I don’t know the story behind the imagery, but suffice it to say this was not the Ledges guy and pretty far from the Saints and Liars or Family guy. But if the point of a promotional image is to pique interest, it certainly did that.
Then there was the lead single, the opening track “After All.” Dynamic and powerful, more like his Young in the City project, and a welcome development more toward pop indie rock and away from the string-heavy folk music that was his calling card. I didn’t fall in love with it immediately, but it definitely grew on me with time. When I got the full album and spun the second track “The Sound,” I felt like the honest rock vibe worked really well. Some of the shouted vocals do not suit everyone’s taste, but it seemed to be genuinely a reflection of Gundersen in this stage.
“Heavy Metals” has an interesting synth element that definitely shows a new production direction. The lyrics still hit hard with a broad artistic ideas that allow the listener to take different directions with it. The song actually pairs pretty well with the more optimistic (while cynical) “Number One Hit of the Summer (Fade Out).” The track pulls out all the stops with tons of layered guitars and a really tight rhythm section. The opening question, “Is this the good life you were imagining?” is vintage Gundersen, always with the existential questions. Some of the aggressive lyrics and delivery seem like a crying out in the wilderness. And that’s not such a bad thing, really.
But I want to jump to a few of the songs that I really love on this album. The second half is much more satisfying than the first half (and I get that is totally subjective). “Fear and Loathing” is the beginning of the improvement, with a guitar opening and socially conscious lyrics. Feeling a bit more like a Jason Isbell song in that politically-charged Americana vein, I fell in love with the song right away. It makes you think about what it means to be alive in modern America. It’s dark, but there’s a certain Springsteen quality to the production, especially with the driving rock melody over a cinematic piano line. It’s great.
“New Religion” gets me right in “the feels” as the kids say. It’s an emotionally charged song that begins, fittingly, with an amazing backing organ part. The melody line is quite simply vintage Gundersen. The lyrics cry out for something (or someone?) to love. It feels like the genuine seeking that we’ve all loved since we first heard Gundersen on Family. The difference here is that he’s proposing a “new religion” that seems to be rooted in something raw and critical; “get on your knees, salvation ain’t free.” Although he doesn’t say it, I suppose that Gundersen is being critical of contemporary Christian society. It’s been a year for that.
The following “Bad Desire” is one of my favorites on the album, with a really thoughtful and personal element to it. It’s about longing and love, and a bit of lust, too. It’s honest in ways that so many other artists refuse to be. The raw emotion of it is sure to satisfy a lot of his fans. Stylistically it’s hard to pin down, but it feels like something from more of the Bill Withers era of pop soul music. I honestly would love to hear more from him like this.
“Wake Me Up, I’m Drowning” is the song that absolutely wrecks me. As someone who is a fan, but also a long time supporter, this song feels like Gundersen’s very public cry for help. It seems like the world of constant questioning is putting his own mind, heart, and artistry in a bit of a tailspin. Maybe it’s all an act. Maybe he’s happier than he’s ever been. I don’t know. But this song feels like another voice crying out in the wilderness. The opening whispered vocal moves into an emotive and captivating screamed vocal. The palpable tension in the song is nothing short of amazing, even if it’s not necessarily something you want to see one of your favorite artists experience.
The penultimate track “Dry Year” reminds me more of the Carry the Ghost era of Gundersen’s writing. The spoken lines are really intriguing and remind us all of his older style. But the lyrical development shows that it’s definitely a “new Gundersen” expression. It feels like a song meant to be a provocation, to get listeners to think more critically about the world. Have some compassion, he begs, and stop thinking about your own limited life and love. Get beyond yourself.
The last track is my favorite by a long shot. In fact, it’s probably my favorite Gundersen song since Ledges. “Send the Rain (To Everyone)” gives me hope that Gundersen is merely questioning his world with this album, but has not lost all hope for it. There’s a certain optimism here (although some might find it a bit too humanistic) that I find beautifully refreshing. It opens somewhat tragically talking about death, but then it points to love as the only real salvo in a world that is so broken. I find the sonic construction, with the combination of Gundersen’s vocal and acoustic with some higher atmospheric elements (probably keys) that really just melt into the track. When he sings “send the rain; send my love to everyone” I just… I break down. After dozens of listens, I still can’t write this without feeling it. There’s hope in this song. It will probably be on my song of the year list because this is precisely the kind of music we want to share with the world.
So if you’re still not sure about this album, I invite you to keep listening until it hits you. Where some of Gundersen’s earlier music had a simpler vehicle (i.e. folk) to deliver the message, this style has a bit more depth to it. There’s complexity in the production decisions that shape the sound, the emotion, and ultimately the message. This may not be an album for all Gundersen fans, especially those who loved his early career style, but anyone who enjoyed his Young in the City project will find this a welcome evolution in the sound of a ever-complex songwriter. He remains one of the best songwriters in this generation, so don’t sleep on any of his music.