There’s a meditative quality to guitarist/singer Steve Gunn’s work here on his latest release Eyes on the Lines that lends itself to getting lost, either literally or figuratively, within the wider world. Indeed, the very first words we hear on opening track “Ancient Jules” deal with just this idea: “You were lost / On the road from a different way.” From here, the song moves rhythmically forward while Gunn’s guitar wanders in and out of the song’s structure, embarking on extended detours that eventually find their way back to the central melodic figure that helps the song regain focus.
The longest track on the album, “Ancient Jules” serves as something of a statement of intent for what is to come, giving the listener fair warning that the ensuing tracks will play as the aural equivalent of wanderlust personified. When he sings, “Take your time / Ease up / Look around and waste the day” prior to embarking on an extended, circuitous guitar solo he puts this very notion into practice. By not concerning himself with parameters or expectations he can allow the music to unfold organically, to discover itself as it is in turn being discovered.
Were it not for his clearly established underground palmarès and time spent exploring the avant garde, Gunn could easily be lumped in to the current crop of Grateful Dead-influenced jam bands. From the album’s opening moments on, it’s clear the Dead have played an important role in shaping Gunn’s approach to songwriting, rooting his sound in Americana while allowing for extended sonic explorations that stray beyond the basic strictures of the song itself.
Yet like the Dead circa-American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead Gunn forgoes the current trend towards crafting songs almost as an afterthought and wholly in service to epic solo passages, Gunn’s approach strives to reconcile the desire to solo with quality songwriting. Rather than merely soloing for the sake of soloing, his tend to stretch out from these fully-formed songs in long, looping patterns that play more as scenic detours. This approach carries with it the very notion of travel, moving beyond the established template of the song, lyrics and melody, to temporarily experience something new and different before returning to the known.
On “The Drop” in particular, Gunn’s solo takes on the form of something wholly new and different outside the established, circular chord progression, playing as a temporary reprieve from the expected to explore an unlimited potential. By “Conditions Wild” he has explicitly stated this idea as he sings, “It’s a field guide from the other side / Beyond the path you know.” In this, he paraphrases Rebecca Solnit’s central thesis in her 2006 book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost in which she explores the significance of moments and experiences for those who tend to wander. On both this and his previous release, Way Out Weather, Gunn has shown himself fully possessed by the spirit of wanderlust, taking in all the world has to offer and filtering it back through his own lens.
And because of this, the natural world figures heavily throughout Eyes on the Lines, both literally and figuratively. Whether in the numerous references to water or talk of exploring off the beaten path, the nature plays a prominent role in how Gunn views and experiences the world around him. “There’s a constant motion/makes you feel like the ocean,” he sings on “Nature Driver”, one of a handful of songs grounded within the natural world. Proving himself yet again to be a masterfully skilled guitarist, Gunn approximates the sentiment behind this statement within the music itself, his guitar ebbing and flowing with a constant, fluid sense of forward motion. In this both nature and the wanderer become synonymous, inextricably entwined with each and offering complementary experiences.
While this all reads as more than a bit neo-hippie, Gunn manages to avoid the more cloying tendencies of those who spend their time claiming to be one with nature by simply inhabiting the world of which he sings. It’s a grounded, naturalist point of view that finds him functioning more as narrative guide aiding the listener through their own wanderings rather than relying on first person insularity. By sticking to the universal, Gunn manages to create an album of songs replete with deeply personal sentiments that can apply to nearly anyone who hears them or has felt the insistent pull of wanderlust. Eyes on the Lines functions as the ideal soundtrack to an afternoon spent getting lost.
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