Review Summary: The balance is clumsy, but the delivery is honest as ever.
“I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to base my own self-worth on how people are going to respond to it.
Noah Gundersen kicked off his Ledges
tour last year in Vancouver, and he did so with cautious gratitude. “Thanks for letting us play these songs so loudly
”, he remarked between electric and dense arrangements of his typically soft, earnest songs. While some watched the performance unsure how to accept the change, Gundersen himself seemed enlivened by the full-band arrangements. He was making bold movements, and slowly distancing himself from what could’ve been a tireless future in the ‘adult-contemporary’ world. Perhaps then, as his sophomore album Carry the Ghost
is released, Gundersen’s experimentation is no surprise -- truly, how long can a singer-songwriter tread the same path before getting bored? Carry the Ghost
has a bit of it all: the old, the safe, the risky, the boring, the overwrought, the perfect, and the new. It may not balance it all expertly, but the Washington songwriter’s finesse as a vocalist and songwriter cannot be shaken.
Pianos, cymbal swells, pulsating strings, and effect-laden guitars have dominion over Noah’s trusted acoustic in the first half of the album, and some of the results are stunning. ‘The Difference’ begins like a Half Moon Run song, with rims clicking underneath a Radiohead-like guitar line and one of Gundersen’s more inspired, creative melodies. ‘Show Me the Light’ uses a flat, twangy and spacious full-band arrangement as a backdrop to the unusually crowded lyrics. Album highlight ‘Halo (Disappear/Reappear)’ marks the appearance of a more impersonal sounding production, with Sufjan Steven-esque melodies, space-y climactic vocals, and a sloppy, chaotic lead guitar that beautifully closes the song. Negative space, as in the past, is given generously, and most arrangements have a tasteful amount of breathing room despite the addition of instruments.
Lyrically, Carry the Ghost
is dominated (unsurprisingly) by heartbreak, introspection, and muddled spirituality. Despite singles ‘Slow Dancer’ and ‘Jealous Love’ suggesting a safe and paint-by-number feel, many cuts on the album mark a sharper, more vulnerable direction. Don’t worry -- he still has a penchant for the word “honey”, and paints in broad poetic strokes on many tracks. But unlike Ledges
, many of his musings this time around are not blankly relatable, but precisely personal. Take for example, this excerpt from ‘Show Me the Light’:
“I watched you watching Jesus like you were watching a star. I started praying that you’d find room for both of us in your heart, but the more I tried, the more I’d find I could not pretend to give a damn about your religion, or for all your ***ty friends.
Gundersen’s descent into broken-hearted cynicism has always been easy to follow when listening to his music, but Carry the Ghost
finds him finally reaching some tough conclusions. “This is all we are
”, he beautifully articulates later on the record, “blood and bones, no holy ghost... empty from the start”
And of course, with the greater specificity, some lines are a bit too on the nose to be taken seriously -- especially on ‘I Need a Woman’ and ‘Topless Dancer’, where Lone Bellow aping clichés and ungainly metaphors take over. ‘I Need a Woman’ is also where Carry the Ghost
loses its momentum. For much for the second half, many of Noah’s murmurings and arrangements began to simply drag out the running time. Even the powerful ‘Heartbreaker’, a revisited stand-out on the Twenty Something
EP, is neutered by the undecorated vocal production, and an imprecise arrangement. Perhaps a more intuitively arranged track-list would’ve benefitted the final songs, but the official order is unflattering and Carry the Ghost
seems unbalanced for it. That, and many of the production choices seem random and disconnected from song to song -- there is very little cohesive feel or congruity.
Through it all, Noah Gundersen is still Noah Gundersen. His vocals are still leathery and resonant, his melodies still inspired, and his band is ever the more creative. It is very uneven, but nonetheless important: the progression seems natural, promising, and deserved. Carry the Ghost
may be the least commanding in Noah’s discography, but it is certainly the most inventive and daring -- I'm sure it will long be argued that some of the man’s best songs came from this album. If Carry the Ghost
proves anything, it's that Noah Gundersen is on the cusp of something jaw-dropping, but he’s yet to get his feet planted -- it’ll be worth the wait, no question about it.