Although he has been releasing music for over a decade, I’ve never had the pleasure of listening to a Steve Gunn album. However, after hearing his latest offering, The Unseen In Between, I can confidently state that I’m looking forward to exploring his back catalogue. A quick search reveals that his resume includes several solo albums, collaborations and for a short time, he was a member of Kurt Vile’s band. Gunn is an American singer-guitarist whose music has been said to have a sensibility that echoes the sound of English singer-songwriters, despite the fact that he hails from Philadelphia.
This is a wonderful album that grabbed me from the opening song, “New Moon”. Like every song that follows, the production is top-notch, with vocals and guitars nicely balanced so that one doesn’t overpower the other, and there’s just enough colour provided by other instruments to fill out the sound. Gunn is a competent rather than outstanding singer, but his stream of consciousness lyrics backed by mesmeric guitar patterns elevate the songs on this album.
Although the album is a mere nine songs long, two-thirds of the tracks run longer than five minutes, and there’s not a weak link to be found. One of the strengths of the album is that longer songs allow Gunn to stretch out with arrangements that invite the listener to become immersed in the unfolding sound, but they’re not so long that they become boring or self-indulgent. Being able to find this balance is a skill in itself.
“Vagabond” is a chipper little number that features lyrics about being “camped up in a graveyard / Took a job to clean some tombstones”. This is as close as you’ll get to a commercial-sounding song, and enjoyable though it is, the real gems are the contemplative laid-back folk-rock songs at the core of the album. “Stonehurst Cowboy”, a tribute to his late father, featuring lyrics that recall his time in Vietnam, is a strong contender for best song on the album. However, it has several rivals. That Steve Gunn is a superb guitar player is obvious, but he’s rarely flashy, often favouring a fingerpicking style on both electric and acoustic guitars, and it’s always in service of the song. “New Familiar” features hypnotic picking that loops for most of the running time before the sublime solo brings the song to a close. “Lightning Field” takes its inspiration from an art installation featuring 400 metal rods in the ground in a field in New Mexico, and like “New Familiar” closes with the guitars letting loose in the coda.
This is followed by the deceptively simple but beautifully played meditation of “Morning is Mended” before the closing track “Paranoid”, which is reminiscent of Pink Floyd. Folk-rock with a little psychedelia thrown into the mix is about as close as you’ll get to pigeonholing this superbly crafted album. As with all the best albums, The Unseen In Between rewards repeat plays as its little melodies keep appearing in your mind throughout the day, drawing you back to the record for more. It’s early in 2019, but I feel sure that this will feature high on my end-of-year list of best albums. Don’t be surprised to see it appear in the lists of some heavyweight music magazines and blogs either.
Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.