Steve Gunn The Unseen in Between

[Matador; 2019]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: folk, blues, rock, singer-songwriter, lite psych
Others: Meg Baird, Papa M, Vetiver, Bill Callahan, Six Organs of Admittance, Gary Higgins, The Clientele

As the new album title could suggest, Steve Gunn is among the singer-songwriters who resist overt lyrical messaging, for whom tradition is both a thing to honor and a jumping-off point to something else. This something else is not better or even new necessarily. It’s less experimentation and more curbing the impulse to rep for the old things that inform and inspire us. Instead, these musicians amble, allowing what’s sturdy about beloved touchstones to be enlivened with symbiotic potential. The world is then graced with sounds that are simultaneously nostalgic and grounded, where it isn’t about what’s urgent so much as the quiet pleas for the preservation of reflection. Or perhaps just the graciousness to do what comes natural and soothe the weary world around us.

Even with the continued polish and expanded grandeur of his arrangements (the sweeping strings-and-harmonica moment toward the end of the opener is eyebrow-raisingly vast for the artist), there is a sober, matter-of-fact kind of reassurance to Gunn’s songs that remains consistent. Although a large element of that comes from his unassuming singing, he sounds more soulful on The Unseen in Between, allowing his voice to sustain a bit more. Lead-off single “Vagabond” is likable enough (namely for Meg Baird’s airy backing vocal), but it might be the slightest thing on here. It’s a little too close to that dour but poppy blues rock of the War on Drugs or post-Childish Prodigy Kurt Vile sound, where he already has enough of his own flavor going. But, as with almost every track on this record, it is expertly produced for maximum resonance. Little signature touches, like diminishing little outros or minor textural flourishes, work well to endear each song to even a passive listener.

Who, let’s face it, this stuff is partly destined for. It’s rootsy soft rock built for coffee and reading and conversational volume. How do we watch the water flow, lean into a slack posture, and dream now in this turbulent world without jamming up the change that surely must happen? There is a fatalism that some might miss (“Into the ground is where we’re bound” goes the refrain of “Lightning Field”), but the peace of Gunn’s music is like that. It is with the dead, the missed, the invisible path ahead. Even when we are at our most salient in our daily machinations, there is a liberating notion that we play a small, easily-obliterated part in life. In this sense, watching the water roll by is like communing with life’s impermanence so that it might not bark and bite at us later. The same goes for these nine wistful, worried tunes. They’re soft but weatherbeaten, just like us, and narrowly squeeze their comforting qualities (“Luciano” is particularly cozy, with a wonderful swirling outro) past complacency to something like fortification.

Of course, some of us might wish he’d go back to something more bare bones, but we can go to his Gunn/Truscinski material for this (2017’s Bay Head is a solidly gritty antidote). Actually, upon hearing Gunn perform these new songs with just voice and acoustic on his last Best Show appearance, it’s clear he’s improved considerably since his still-solid 2013 breakout LP, Time Off. Gunn has been decidedly prolific, but he has shown no signs of phoned-in creative stagnation. He might not be making sounds for fighting the many injustices of our current place and time, but Unseen in Between is nonetheless a solid compatriot against the confounding effect of going forward among them.

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