Veteran New York folk-rocker Steve Gunn is back this year with a very un-hyped, unpretentious and full-bodied LP and… well, we’re all just licking our chops! That’s about it!
Overall, there’s very little to complain about with this nine-song, vinyl-length collection, which outplays therein as not only a brilliant and opaque swatch of music falling somewhere between Wilco and Beck’s Mutations but also a sort of cultural beacon in itself, a furious melding of imagistic poetry and timbral folk vocal which, like I said, can make for the perfect record to spin, either at home, in a café or in a vinyl vendor establishment.
To be honest, this project really took me by surprise in general — I’d heard Gunn’s “Ancient Jules,” the opener off of his 2016 LP, and digested it pretty well, but found the rest of that record a tad thin and pretentious, sort of like the boiled-down work of a collective of minds rather than the urgent output of one driven mind. The Unseen in Between is a refreshing and I think daring step forward from that material. The nervous, frantic riffs are replaced by deliberate Neil Young-style guitar strumming, songs that are built around chord progressions and not just thin little jingles or ideas. Along with “New Familiar”; “Lightning Field” and “Paranoid”; opener “New Moon” is a key standout, where his beautiful guitar courts sporadic plucks from an upright bass, the perfect, digestible background for his poetic lyrics, which take the forefront. “I see a glimmer”; they read, “Across the water / Through the mirror / Out past the streets / Beyond the weather / To that lake / To that lake no one seems to know”. Then, in comes treated, wavering guitar, and the feeling transmitted by this music is thoroughly undeniable, like the visual, virtual effect of psychedelia where reality is conveyed by beautiful metaphoric delusion and the pure, rich quality of Gunn’s voice.
“Vagabond” starts out very much like a Pavement Wowee Zowee ballad with the wilting steel guitar prevailing over the proceedings, then proceeding into a twee-pop groove which called to mind Real Estate. Spottily, I think this music dissolves into the pastoral and content, like there’s not enough dark tension at hand here, but then Gunn’s brilliant lyrics take the fore and I’m disarmed again, a la “Camped out in a graveyard / Took a job cleaning some tombstones / Like lovers in a chateau of a crooked dream”. Almost like a kaleidoscope which makes no sense but is completely beautiful, or something with so much curb appeal that it draws you in and then lets its ugliness liberate you, these Cubist lyrics make the perfect compliment for this deliberate, contemplative rock and roll, music which is textural enough not to need pretension or phrasing unorthodoxy and again, digestible enough to play and be enjoyed just about anywhere.
The Unseen in Between is sequenced exemplarily, with the most powerful moments as bookends and a couple of gentle, halting ballads in the middle. It rewards a complete listen, too, with the unforgettable closeur “Paranoid” furnishing, again with lyrics about beaches and nature, the haunting idea that “Something he sees / Is called paranoia / They just made it up / It’s his favorite word / Not sure what it means / But it’s what he believes / And it’s coming from / Nowhere at all”. Wow! Just try to wrap your mind around that. It’s like the most brilliant set of lyrics since Billy Joel’s “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness / But it’s better than drinking alone”. So the basic idea would obviously be that in our world fear is justified, not irrational as the application of the term “paranoia” would suggest, but what keeps tripping me up is that the ACCUSATION of paranoia creeps in to the plaintiffs mind with that same unexplainable, phenomenological nonsensicality. The fear is logical, in other words, and it’s the accusation of paranoia that makes no sense, unfounded, “coming from nowhere at all”. And with that, I leave you back to this hurling world, and to what I hope is a proper examination of a great LP.