Saturday, March 26, 2016
Noah Gundersen - Carry the Ghost
What ultimately made Ledges so special was the intimacy of it. It was dropping the needle on that record and immediately feeling like "Poor Man's Son" was being performed in your living room. It was hearing Noah make these candid, heart-on-the-sleeve statements about his life and his relationships, without reservation or pretense. It was the fact that so much emotional power could be yielded just by his sister Abby's voice or violin playing, without any need for electric instrumentation. It was the fact that the production was so raw and organic that the album felt like it had been recorded straight-to-tape, even if it hadn't. Too often, singer/songwriters who find that kind of success with little more than acoustic guitar, great lyrics, and a haunting voice tend to lose some of what made them so special when they expand to full band. In the past few years alone, that loss of intimacy is a criticism that's been levied at a slew of my favorite songwriters—from Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, to Ray LaMontagne, to Kristian Matsson of The Tallest Man on Earth—and it wasn't something I wanted to see happen to Noah Gundersen.
Clearly, I needn't have worried.
Instead of taking away the heart and soul of Noah's music, the use of electric guitar and lusher full-band textures on Carry the Ghost proves to be the perfect evolution of his sound. When I spoke to Noah last week, we discussed the idea of acoustic singer/songwriters losing their way when moving into a full-band environment, and he told me that, for him, the fleshing out of his sound was only ever going to happen if it could be done in service of already great song. In other words, instead of starting as big sprawling full band songs, all 13 tracks on Carry the Ghost were written on acoustic guitar or piano. Gundersen and his band then built them up in the studio, searching for ways to make them even more exceptional.
And exceptional they are. In fact, the songs on Carry the Ghost where Gundersen makes ample use of the electric guitar and multi-track layering often work to push his music into a whole new dimension of emotion. The piercing "Halo (Disappear/Reappear)" channels Jeff Buckley, with a big layered background vocal refrain and a climax where Noah's anguished wails are almost drowned out by the clash of the band. "I Need a Woman" uses a wistful electric guitar lead to conjure up an image of the sun rising over the highway in the middle of a post-heartbreak road trip. "Jealous Love" is arguably Gundersen's most conventional pop song ever, combining a killer chorus hook with a climactic guitar solo that will send shivers down your spine. The chiming guitars of "Blossom" give the song a beautifully hazy end-of-summer vibe, with a wash of strings and yet another gorgeous guitar solo providing the emotional peak. And the album's anchor, the seven-minute "Heartbreaker," gets so loud that—as Gundersen noted in our interview—you can actually hear things rattling around in the studio from the virtual earthquake of guitars, bass, and drums.
Still, Gundersen is smart enough to know when he has a song that should be left acoustic, and he opts to keep a stripped down sound for nearly half of Carry the Ghost. "Selfish Art" is perhaps the song here that sounds most like a Ledges cut, starting in near silence, but crescendoing to a big octave-leaping emotional payoff at the climax (a la "First Defeat"). "Planted Seeds" ends the album much like "Time Moves Quickly" ended the last one: a sparse piano ballad serving as an epilogue of sorts for the emotional journey that preceded it. And "Silver Bracelet" uses an entrancing acoustic guitar riff to formulate one of Noah's best breakup songs, the narrator musing nostalgically about a lost relationship, and about the way things used to be "Back before we worked it to the bone/Back before we really should have known/Back before I made up my mind to go." The way Noah sings that final line, in the delicate whisper that he often employs on his softer ballads, is completely devastating, plumbing such depths of weathered emotion that we as listeners get to experience both his pain, and the pain of the person he left behind.
To Gundersen, the title Carry the Ghost comes from the idea that our experiences and the stories that we gather throughout our lives are what shape us. The album as a whole is very existential in its themes and lyrical motifs, playing like the poetry of a man who has slowly shed his religious beliefs throughout his life, and is now searching for new meaning in the world. Those themes posit "Empty from the Start" as the album's clear center-piece, with Gundersen making some pretty blunt and damning proclamations about the concept of organized religion. "Anyone that tells you they were born good is lying," he states in the first verse, his voice crackling with anger before he adds, "we're just born, and we are dying." It's a bleak set-up, but Noah finds the light later in the song, realizing that "To truly love someone is the closest I have come to truth."
Gundersen's point with "Empty from the Start" is evident: meaning and purpose in life don't come from our conception of a god, or from someone else's dated moralistic guidelines or beliefs; rather, they comes from love, and from the relationships we cultivate with other people while we still have time on earth. There's fear and uncertainty to be found in that kind of belief, or in a lyric like "This is all we have, this is all we are/Blood and bones, no Holy Ghost/Empty from the start." But there's also comfort in thinking that no one else is the master of your destiny, or in believing that falling in love and building a family, or even finding a home with a tight-knit group of friends, is sometimes enough to fill your life with all the meaning you really need.
"Topless Dancer," arguably the album's most stunning moment, is equally critical of a life built around religion. Beautifully poetic and metaphorical on an almost Dylanesque level, "Topless Dancer" takes one of the most sexualized and stigmatized images in our culture—that of the eponymous erotic performer—and turns it into something unspeakably beautiful and delicate. "She sang to me the rhythm of autumn/It was there that I found my space/In the search for the perfect Madonna/To bear the burden of Amazing Grace," Gundersen sings in the first verse—images so stunningly beautiful that they at first seem to clash with the title of the song...until you realize that said contrast is the whole point of the song. Ultimately, the topless dancer of the title turns out to be a metaphor for the way our culture—and specifically, our religious groups—see sexuality as something to be hidden, something to be suppressed, something to be guilty of. "And to the priests and the prophets/Who say our bodies are godless/Oh, tell me what the hell does that mean?" Noah scrutinizes, taking to task, in the second verse, the institutions that can make someone feel ashamed about something as uncontrollable as a sexual dream. There's a connection to be found here to "Empty from the Start," and it's this: if the true meaning of life is found in love and relationships, then sexuality is a big part of that meaning as well; to suppress it, therefore, is to suppress who we are.
The topics that Noah Gundersen chooses to tackle on Carry the Ghost are not easy subjects to write songs about—particularly songs that don't rehash tired perspectives we've already heard a hundred times before. No one wants to hear a 26-year-old male parrot the things he learned in a human sexuality class or read about in an existentialist philosophy textbook. Remember the Harvard bar douchebag from Good Will Hunting? That's probably the kind of album he would make. But Gundersen, at 26, is already more thoughtful and eloquent than many songwriters who are 10, 20, or even 30 years his senior. Instead of just writing stock songs about existentialism or sexuality or broken relationships, Gundersen ties every word and melody he writes to his own personal experiences—his own personal ghosts. The result is a record that feels as weighty as a work of literature, but also as enveloping and beautiful as the best albums that the folk music genre has ever produced. I can't yet say whether or not it's better than Ledges, or even whether or not it will be my album of the year, but I can say that Carry the Ghost is the second straight masterpiece from one of the most engaging and exciting songwriters working today, and based on how young Gundersen still is, it's frankly quite thrilling to imagine the kind of albums he might be capable of making in the future. If you aren't listening to this guy yet, start.