A song built lyrically around intertwined metaphors of burning, “Slow Dancer” opens Noah Gundersen’s new album and announces Gundersen’s deep explorations of religious and relationship struggles. “Light me up again / If it makes you feel free / Light me up again / Call me a snake and a liar,” he sings, but different from most pop songs, Gundersen will not explain why the relationship ended, nor say that he is looking for forgiveness or trying to make amends. Nor is he, in any way, judgmental of his former love. The song begins with a simple piano arrangement before it slowly builds beautiful sonics with toms, a bass line, and an exquisite low electric guitar lead. “Burn,” he sings, “like a holy fire.” If you like Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses sound and themes, you’re going to like this song and this album.
Gundersen is just 26 years old, but he’s already released two full-length albums with his former band, the Courage, and three EPs and now a second LP as a solo artist. His album from 2014, Ledges, established him as a songwriter of weighty songs focused on themes of religious doubt and disillusionment — Gundersen grew up in a conservative Christian family, was home-schooled, and had his music listening limited to Christian artists. He has said that he’s no longer religious but has been trying to understand how he might infuse spiritual energy into his music, which he certainly does on his best songs on Carry the Ghost, songs such as “Slow Dancer”, “Show Me the Light”, and “Empty from the Start”, where he sings “God is love and love has made us / But have you seen the news today / I have and I think God is gone away / If he was ever there anyway.” But existential philosophizing is not a pessimistic end but a necessary beginning for Gundersen to gain the wisdom that acceptance of life and caring about others is all we can do. The song’s narrator continues: “To truly love someone is the closest / I have come to truth / This is all we have, this is all we are / Blood and bones, no Holy Ghost / Empty from the start.”
While the new album partially inhabits religious terrain, Gundersen is exploring more what follows when you’ve made your break, when you’re finding out what might replace those discarded values and ways of thinking, when you acknowledge that you’re empty from the start but you don’t want to stay empty. Gundersen has said in an interview that one of the few truly valuable things we can do is “to make someone else feel slightly less alone, and in that process become slightly less alone yourself.” Without a redemption ending, the album needs a different narrative structure, but the artist’s vision doesn’t include the love lost, love found plot of so many albums. Gundersen does describe with perceptive, often aching understanding the various ways that relationships matter, and in these relationship songs, Gundersen comes the closest to writing an immediately available though rather melancholy pop song. While on early listens I was taken more by the philosophical and spiritual songs that show psychological struggle, these relationship songs such as “Silver Bracelet” and “I Need a Woman” have grown on me. “Jealous Love” sounds as if it could become an Ed Sheeran- or Vance Joy-like single. “Blossom” is simply terrific: lyrical, exquisite in sound and vocal.
“So much of what I do in life as a professional artist,” Gundersen says, “is inherently selfish and narcissistic.” Behind the songs’ searching for philosophical acceptance and meaningful relationships lurks the anxiety about what it means to make art of personal struggles, to use one’s own life to make a career. Gundersen addresses the anxiety directly in the brilliant confessional song, “Selfish Art”. “Sometimes making songs for a living,” Gundersen sings, “feels like living to make songs / And sometimes I get an uneasy feeling / That I’m doing something wrong.” Most of his songs, he goes on to sing, are “due to some broken people”. Is he taking advantage of his own and others’ heartbreak? Is he living his life in order to keep mining those veins of sorrow and struggle? “There’s nothing more sincere than selfish art / There’s nothing more sincere than an empty heart.” Gundersen’s emotional vocal, full of color and yearning, carries this sincerity musically, and doesn’t definitively answer the questions.
Carry the Ghost sounds like considerable money was spent in production. Old fans of Gundersen’s EPs and Ledges might want something that seems less polished, as well as songs that dive even deeper into religious matters — this is not a somewhat inaccessible indie album. It is, however, melancholy beautiful pop that explores some of living’s hard questions.