Calling this album a “debut” is a bit misleading. Many of us in the indie music world have been well familiar with Gundersen’s unique, deep folk music for several years. There are a number of songs on the album that avid Gundersen fans have heard in various forms. The overall quality of the album from start to finish is clearly a step up from his earlier work and his songwriting, which has always been phenomenal, continues to evolve in its own right. This is a must purchase album. It’s already the frontrunner for album of the year for me.
The opener is “Poor Man’s Son,” a wonderful acoustic track with his siblings Abby, Lizzy, and Jonny. While they play various instruments on other tracks on the album, this track shows their very evident family connection. The song starts softer, simpler, but develops and grows into an aggressive lament regarding poverty, dreams, and a host of themes that becoming increasingly evident with numerous listens.
“Boat House” is the most convenient track for a conventional “country music” sound. It is also one of the tracks most like his earlier work. One of his favorite characters, “Caroline,” makes an appearance in this track as well. It’s a song that shows off Gundersen’s range, songwriting complexity, and allows Abby’s violin to provide necessary texture to the attitude of the song. It also shows, almost in one track, the transition Noah’s making in his vocals. While he occasionally uses his growling voice more popular on Family, here he allows more natural and melodic vocals. It helps the lyrical delivery so that the words carry more meaning. The lyric, “up from the Mississippi mud…” is almost whispered, but is one of the best-sung lines in the song.
The first of my two favorite songs on this album is “Isaiah.” There’s a YouTube clip with this track that I had heard before, but it was not the recording quality of this studio version. It’s potentially the perfect Noah Gundersen song. It’s got a nice infusion of religious background, questioning morality, and thinking about how people fit into the crazy relationships of our lives. The melody is comfortable, the guitar playing is excellent, and Abby’s harmonies give it just the right level of subtlety that it needs to make the message come through. It’s kind of a scandalous concept; he’s talking about sleeping with a girl who has a boyfriend and has a Bible verse tattooed on her. It will be permanently be placed in the same playlist as “Jesus, Jesus” for early 21st century critiques of Christianity.
While I said that “Boat House” had a conventional country sound, the title track “Ledges” is probably the best “single” on the album. It has the broad appeal that could (and should) get big airplay from the major contemporary country music scene. “Here I stand on the ledge of the rocks and the valleys… trying to be a better man for you.” It’s perfect. Really, lyrically and stylistically, I could not think of a single change for this song. When he sings, “if blessed are the meek, then I’m cursed” with a sort of Pauline apologetic sinfulness, I cringed with “me too.” There aren’t too many artists making music today that can do what this track does.
“Poison Vine” is a raw, simple song. By simple, I guess I don’t really mean simple. The instrumentation is layered but inauspicious. In fact, it’s probably my favorite style from the Gundersens. “Bless the man whose finger ran the needle to groove…” is one of the simple lines that really drives the track. Who things to deliver such a simple concept in eloquent words? The track seems to be about several things all at once, most notably living life on a daily basis.
The piano-driven “First Defeat” is more introspective in nature. “Takes you by surprise like the bullet you never saw coming… this will be the last time.” Much like the following track, there seems to be some thematic writing having to do with addiction. Although it could be metaphorical, it seems that the track is legitimately about the addiction to another person. He writes about being with a woman for the last time, but with a lot of attitude. The instrumentation is guitar, piano, and duo vocals, but the juxtaposition between Noah’s softer vocals at the beginning and near-shouting at the end really makes the emotion of the song work extremely well.
“Cigarettes” is one of the best songs of the decade. Period. It was my song of the year LAST year because of the CityArts recording of it on YouTube. This studio version is also superb quality. The lyrics make a parallel between the craving for cigarettes with that of a specific lover. What makes it so great, though, is that this comparison is made in a non-cliche way. I think the reference to the “company store” gives it an early 20th century vibe and the simple instrumentation gives it an almost Woody Guthrie quality. All of these things taken together give it so much soul and depth and attitude that pretty much any human who has ever wanted someone or something so bad can relate to… The song is an aural manifestation of a human emotion… and that just doesn’t happen very often.
“Liberator” also fits nicely into the standard Gundersen discography. It’s an unromantic song about a bygone relationship. It has the trappings of folk music, but the backing strings make it feel like it should be in a different category. The reference to “Jesus in the time of doubt” gives it a real rooted feeling, that it’s not just a whining song about a defunct relationship. There’s a sense that he’s really wrestling with how to get over their experience.
My other favorite song on this album is “Dying Now.” This song gives me chills literally every time I hear it. Somewhere around 1:30, after a beginning of Noah’s solo voice over his guitar, Abby gets to shine and her voice does not disappoint. When Noah joins her the duo harmonies are just out of this world. “You’ve done a lot of living in this town… you’ve done a lot of flying with your feet on the ground… you can build your bridges after you burn them down…” I can’t purport to know exactly what the lyrics mean, but they seem to allude to reflecting on life and the past. Abby’s violin part helps to make the track work, too. It’s just an overall well executed track that makes me swell with happiness.
The final track “Time Moves Quickly” was written by Abby, with the lyrics penned by Noah. It’s an incredible songwriting combination. I think it provides the perfect ending to the album. After toe tapping and getting frustrated with bygone loves, it’s really great to calm down with this more “contemporary classical” kind of song. The words are about perseverance in the midst of a difficult relationship. It’s a nice challenging and beautiful sentiment to finish out a stellar album.
I said at the outset that this is a must-buy album. It’s just incredible from start to finish. I shudder to think where Noah’s songwriting will evolve from here. Fans of new folk music have to give this a spin. Additionally, fans of acoustic singer songwriters should already know about Noah, but if they don’t this is definitely a great contribution to that genre. The complex imagery, deep symbolism, and intricate melody lines, this is not the average “three chords and a smile” corner singer songwriter guy. Noah exhibits true artistry at a high level, sustained on a skip-free album. Do enjoy friends.