ALBUM: Carry the Ghost
ARTIST: Noah Gundersen
Album release date: August 21, 2015
A Weighty Presence
“I don’t believe in universal truth,” Noah Gundersen says in an interview. He says it the way one might say, I don’t like mushrooms. “But I do believe in honesty,” he adds, vaguely, “I’m building my own belief system from the ground up.”
Noah Gundersen hails from Olympia, Washington. Raised in a devout Christian home, he and his musical siblings banded together and began performing in various venues and festivals throughout their teenage and young adult years. Gundersen’s music is characterized by vocal harmonies, acoustic guitars and somber strings, folk-arrangements and autobiographical lyrics. He and his family members possess beautiful chemistry as they play, anticipating one another’s movements and weaving effortlessly back and forth with both their voices and their instruments: Noah is the lead, and the weightiness of his presence draws the music to and from his core.
I remember being stunned by the way the atmosphere changed the moment he and his sister Abigail came out on stage in a packed auditorium at a folk festival I attended last Fall – his voice, his sadness, his simplicity and his music were mesmerizing (and a welcome relief after a prolonged performance by an overly-enthused man wielding a mandolin). He sang about religion, faith, doubt, love, mistakes, Isaiah; and his words expressed the desire to become truer, stronger, and steadier. There were no cheerful songs, no dashes of comedy or frivolity – his music is morose – yet even without those healthful and expected contours, it certainly fed me and inspired me, and left me feeling mainly hopeful for him. I bought his album Ledges (from which he had performed that night) and appreciated its vulnerability and simple musicality, as well as its lyrical content; so it was with hope that I looked forward to hearing his latest release, Carry the Ghost, released on August twenty-first of this year.
The Problem of “Not Knowing” & Self-Crucifixion
Carry the Ghost ventures into a broader, lusher musical landscape than his previous could-have-been-sung-in-your-living-room sound. Electric guitar, multi-track layering, piano, and strings provide a more aggressive, full-band backdrop to Noah’s alternately fragile and angry vocals. Despite these changes in approach, the particular poignancy with which Gundersen sings and plays is maintained, and at no point does the album feel like a manic goose-chase into a sonically disingenuous place.
Thematically, I was ready for melancholy: what I wasn’t expecting was the generous portion of bitterness served in the first two tracks, which offer little more than Noah feeling sorry for himself because he feels sorry for himself. The third song, Selfish Art, continues blithely down this navel-gazing track: it is the loveliest reveling in one’s own ennui that I’ve heard this year (Gundersen can write and sing a pretty song). By this time, I had a grim feeling that the stage had been set for the remainder of the album, and I prepared receive a musical sermon on the existential absurdity of it all, preached by one of the enlightened young souls who’s been lucky enough to “figure out” that we’re all bastards and there is no real point in trying to do “right.” My inkling was close to being correct, though it’s true that a handful of songs stepped off of the absurdity train – maybe it would be more apt to say a handful of lines in a handful of songs stepped off the absurdity train – and revealed a sense of self-awareness that wasn’t altogether arrogant and/or luxuriously tortured. Show Me the Light is a song about the one girl Noah sets above all the rest, the girl he desires to loves and understand most of all, but who remains inaccessible to him due to his cynicism and lack of belief (which he is evidently aware of, and at least in this song, perplexed by). Silver Bracelet is a song about losing faith/falling out of relationship, and I was surprised by the erudite line, “What I didn’t know is [that] not knowing shows where your heart is.” Gundersen obviously understands the relationship between intimacy and mystery, and has struggled with the nature of paradox (is paradox contradiction? Is it better to accept or to understand?) and the problem of “not knowing”: but for him, it appears that the gray area of love and faith have “proven” to him that if something cannot be proven, then it isn’t worth putting stock in, or striving after. In fact, it doesn’t sound like it was something he’s wrestled with that earnestly – it sounds more like something he played about with scornfully for a time, and now looks back on with cool indifference, based on the timber of these songs as a whole.
It was frustrating to me that every glimpse of potential sincerity and humility in this album is eclipsed by an infuriating obsession with self-crucifixion which mocks the philosophy of meaning and its manner of categorizing actions and decisions according to standards of “right” or “wrong.”
A Spokesman for the Hipster Agnostic
I want to like Noah Gundersen. I really do. And I do respect different worldviews and opinions, and the fact that every opinion has a person with a history behind it. But the thing that often irks me most about relativists and absurdists, be they musicians, artists, philosophers, or CEOs – is how self-contradictory they tend to be. “Nothing has meaning, and there is no universal truth. I mean it.” Nobody really lives like an absurdist or a relativist: if they did, they’d have ended their lives long ago, and wouldn’t have left a note, a song, or any other trace.
Gundersen is talented. He knows how to arrange a ballad and pull at the heart. But to say that his latest project is “heavily influenced by existential philosophy” and marked by “erudite sophistication”, as it is so modestly described on his website is as pretentious as it is arrogant. He’s another person who’s working through what his childhood means as it reverberates in his adult life: another person who sees belief systems and morality as things which impinge on personal expression, a spokesman for the hipster agnostic who reads a passage or two from Camus and calls it a day. His latest album lacks the humility needed for it to be courageous: truly courageous people are ones who are open to being surprised.