Album Review: Other You // Steve Gunn

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Few artists have enjoyed such inexhaustible creative productivity yet such modest mainstream recognition as Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Steve Gunn. Despite a career which has spanned nearly 15 years of virtuoso talent as a melodic, technically proficient guitar player and a nuanced, poetic lyricist, it has only been Gunn’s more recent output that has gained mainstream traction. Gunn’s critically acclaimed 2019 effort The Unseen In Between has often been described as a “breakthrough”, but the real truth seems to be of an artist making incremental steps along the road to individual recognition rather than achieving a seismic breakout with one definitive record.

If plaudits have been hard-won, Gunn’s creative spark and technical mastery have been evident from his earliest offerings, such as 2009’s Boerum Palace, an early exhibition of complex, nuanced fretwork coupled with a gift for non-verbal storytelling. 2013’s Time Off saw Gunn’s smooth, airy vocals feature with increasing prominence, his folky, guitar-focused musings still integral by the time of his first full-length release—2014’s Way Out Weather. His latest offering, Other You, is in many ways a continuation of the more personal aspects of 2019’s The Unseen In Between, an album that tackled, among much else, the death of Gunn’s father.

Despite Other You’s apparently second-person perspective, it’s a record that puts Gunn at the centre of his own musical landscape, an intimate recording that sees the artist as less of an outside narrator and more of an active participant in the stories he crafts. Lyrically dense and poetic in the construction of every line, Other You provides a window into a man taking great care with the words he sings, Gunn’s tenor voice enhanced by polished production and neat, uncluttered instrumentation.

As has increasingly been the case with Gunn’s musical offerings, his lyrical output is as integral to his work as the rich guitar work accompanying it. Starkly evident on Other You’s opening title track, crammed with mature poetic constructions and strong narrative concepts, themes of the past and of memory are framed by images of a rustic American landscape: “Tell me what they’re worth” intones Gunn, “Precious metal memories / dig them from the Earth”.

This earthy American imagery runs central to Other You. ‘Fulton’ turns down the noise of city streets and the local NY radio station ‘1010 Wins’ and replaces them with the silence of the night. ‘Good Wind’ is more lyrically accessible to a UK audience, the ethereal opening tones and simple drumbeat giving way to a more straightforward vocal delivery, ideas of change more starkly evident by the album’s fourth track, and transience abounds as Gunn sings of “ashes in the sky.” It’s a theme that really takes hold during the album’s middle phase, with ‘Circuit Rider’ easing into a bluesy guitar bed under strained vocals and abstract lyrics speaking of a “circuit rider cyborg” who “watches horizons of tears”, bringing to mind the itinerant preachers of nascent America’s roving clergy. The movement continues as Other You rolls on to its midpoint with ‘On The Way’, a chugging yet gentle tune reminiscent of Willie Nelson via Noah and the Whale.

It’s this cluster within Other You which arguably sees the most melodic and thematic cohesion. Gunn’s offerings have always taken subtle inspiration from a host of eclectic sources, from the poetry of John Ashbery to John Fahey’s intricate fingerstyle guitar work, and the latter half of his latest release breaks away from folk-infused guitar progressions. ‘Protection’ sees muted electric licks delivered with a lowered, more strutting rock and roll vocal style, while ‘Reflection’ introduces a Wurlitzer electronic piano, Gunn now playing the role of a blue-eyed soul crooner. ‘Sugar Kiss’ switches things up again, a glistening, shimmering soundscape coming courtesy of Mary Lattimore’s otherworldly harp work, the only track devoid of any lyrics.

Other You follows Gunn’s proclivity for subtle, nuanced experimentation; it’s a quiet record which allows itself to be discovered rather than demanding immediate attention. Gunn’s journey has been long and meandering, his outlook tender, serene, and cut with gentle sadness. This latest record—filled with imagery of the bucolic and the ethereally rustic—showcases a natural evolution rather than an artificial stylistic break. For those who have followed this journey from its genesis, there’s still a great deal of reward to be found in shadowing Gunn’s sonic path.

Words by Harry Alexander


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