Continues Gunn’s quest for perfection within a limited sound.
Steve Gunn, along with Ryley Walker, Julie Byrne, William Tyler, etc., is part of a new generation of critically-acclaimed inside musicians revitalizing the sounds of 1970s rock and folk in a mellow, psychedelic fashion. The experimentation comes in the subtle details, and in Gunn’s case especially, there’s an appeal to close listening in his layered, guitar-driven approach. His latest, and second for Matador, The Unseen In Between, continues his quest for perfection within a limited sound. It’s a more emotional album than he’s ever made, though not so wracked with feeling that it disregards the breezy contentment always at the heart of Gunn’s music.
Gunn’s father passed away right before writing this album, so loss and grief play a main role in the lyrical themes, Still, Gunn’s preference for painting American landscapes and woebegone heroes reigns throughout. On “Stonehurst Cowboy,” an ode to his father, Gunn paints the subject like a character from Dylan’s John Wesley Harding: “Fastest hands in the west/ Call his name, he knows best.” It takes fond remembrance a step further, immortalizing his father by painting him as an outlaw savior.
Though there are moments of intimacy and despair, Gunn’s music retains an overwhelming cheeriness. Even the ballads here, like the woozy “Morning Is Mended,” have a lilting groove to them. Most of the time, the band is able to retain enough control to keep things away from camp, but there a choice few moments where the optimism becomes saccharine. The first half of “Luciano,” with its cries of “Good morning!” atop cymbal washes and ascending chords, and the chime-backed closer “Paranoid” both feel a little too sweet. Especially as “Luciano” follows the Neil Young-indebted minor groove of “Stonehurst Cowboy,” it delivers more triteness than heft.
It’s when The Unseen escapes these singular emotions that the music finds most success. Not only does each track offer up a distinct mood, but Gunn and his band play with such nuance and purpose that no song is ever firmly pinned. “Luciano” demonstrates this best, especially with its extensive coda. Gunn’s reverb-drenched, echoing voice repeats the song’s title atop a bed of guitars and developing string lines. This ending inspires chaos, remorse, anger and pity, and not one of them twice in a row. On headphones, the strings speak clear and tight; on speakers, the whole thing merges into a massive wall of sound. These few minutes serve as a microcosm to the album, a work where the musicians excel at nebulous emotional states, not showing their hand as much as carefully guiding listeners to a selection of equally valid feelings.
Dismissing the uniform sound and style of each Steve Gunn record would be a fair criticism if he wasn’t on a constant upwards trajectory. Each album is just slightly better than the last: cleaner production, better hooks, more personal lyrics, more adventurous guitar workouts. He’s never written a song as devastating as “Stonehurst Cowboy,” never one as psychedelic as the droning “New Familiar.” Odds are his next release will stick to the same formula while finding new crevices within it to explore. “I, I’m a nothing sky/ Story’s never ending,” he sings on “Morning Is Mended,” as if pointing to his own musical tendencies. His music is vast and colorful, but so too is it reliable and steady. The nothing sky is not a deep abyss to be feared, rather it’s a comforting constant in which Gunn makes his name.