Album Reviews

Album Review: Steve Gunn – The Unseen In Between (Matador Records)

Henry Appleyard

Steve Gunn gave everyone at the Tuning Fork in Auckland last year a taste of his new fourth album The Unseen In Between. The evening was a humbling experience wrought with emotional tension that paid tribute to the likes of Jack Rose, Michael Chapman and his father.

The Brooklyn-based artist’s 45 minute medley paints a picture of an alternative American frontier, where the manifestation of his own destiny is drawn with acoustic watercolour strokes and electric dreamy soundscapes. Gunn has conjured up a celestial call of self-actualisation – a brooding journey of musical vagabonding that the opener New Moon casts the listener on.

This journey plonks you alone in a star lit desert. Gunn’s strums put one foot in front of the other as you stroll into “off key dreams that you are living in.” Creeping shakers and droning harmonica bring you closer to a moonlit horizon where you feel Gunn’s desperate calls to “just hang on” alongside his Fender Jaguar's cry for attention – a tone achieved with a healthy mix of pedals.

“For the final guitar lead at end the song I used an RMC wah pedal, Xotic SP compressor, EarthQuaker Devices Palisades, Electro-Harmonix Soul Food, and a Catalinbread Belle Epoch Tape Echo.” shared Gunn. 

The more upbeat Vagabound sees the sun begin to rise as a path is enlightened by plucky off-beat strings and airy female harmonies by collaborator Meg Baird. 80’s sounding synth lines bounce along the dimensions of Gunn’s vocals “like a crooked dream,” convincing the listener, and himself, to “move along.” Angry guitar distortions rip through the mix before being slowly abandoned in the outro, "to that place where no one seems to know."

Stonehurst Cowboy is the only purely acoustic track on the record. We are now up close and personal with Gunn, his voice dry and gasping alongside shambling fingerpicked inflections that solemnly ground the listener, tearing us out of the desert and into a vacant “square of joy.” 

Joy acts as a counterpoint when describing this track. Melancholic vocals creek like an old door, summoning visions of dirt roads escaping into the distance from long ruined ranches in the midwest - where “there is nothing left for all those cowboys in the world". Once owned by Charles Mingus, Tony Garnier’s upright bass ties the track together with a hypnotic effect which, so far, keeps me coming back more than any other.

Lightning Field strikes new territory. Inspired by Walter De Maria's Dia Art installation of 400 tempered steel posts on the high desert of New Mexico, the track juts out of the intro with psychedelic guitar leads that string you along with no definitive end. Gunn’s vocals call for the “sky to the ground” with rolling, never ending acoustic rhythms growing into a more electric, effect driven crescendo that is fresh to the ears. Gunn explains how he achieved such a soundscape.

“For this one I use an acoustic for the primary tracking, and ran it through a Fender Twin Reverb… The twin also gives the acoustic a rounder sound, mixing well with the electric bass. Running the guitar through the amp and micing it gave the guitar tracks a perfect blend.”

Track 8 Morning is Mended creeps into earshot with an ambient whirlpool of strings and low humming drones. Feelings draw a disconnection of lost love, of reconciliation and the foreboding melancholy of moving on – “a nothing sky” that promises unknown futures that may or may not be explored. Experimenting with doubling up both a Martin 000-18 and Pleinview L-00 acoustics, the thick, textured sound of the guitar’s strings harmonise like morning bird song, mending a morning from uncertainty.

Swinging piano pulls the listener in with the last track Paranoid. Sounding like a sonic victory lap that wraps up the album, church bells ring out over muddy train-like rhythms and a dizzying white noise that gives way to fading, dissonant guitar strumming as Gunn’s last words - “it’s coming from nowhere at all” - ring out to eventual silence.

Gunn leaves you unfulfilled, wanting more, in dissonance, but overall, melancholic. 

Produced by James Elkington and engineered by Daniel Schlett, The Unseen In Between is not a easy pleasure to draw from – it’s lovingly lonely, bittersweet and persistent in its dreamy overtones of the “unseen” that lie between the lines of his lyrics. You may have to be patient, but Gunn's experience, experimentation and collaboration has created something special here. 

Click here to stream or buy
Released: 18 Jan 2019

Written By: Henry Appleyard Henry writes stuff. Outside of mentoring in schools and co-running the production company Dura Media, he tries his hand at making documentaries, electronic music and getting people in a room to play funk.