Having been all around the underground block, Steve Gunn’s Matador records output is certainly his most clean-cut and streamlined iteration. Sporting atmospheric grooves that smolder and bolster, The Unseen In Between and Eyes on the Lines are by no means boring, but rather than seeing guitar chops experiment with texture and form, they serve more as platforms for Gunn’s stream of consciousness-ish lyrics that mull over stories and landscapes.
If there’s a palpable difference between the latest and the last, it may come as a product of his change in recording strategy. As highlighted in his Noisey interview, rather than meticulously arranging and performing the instrumental parts then adding vocals, he recorded as a band. The energy and chemistry is more forward as the songs start small and gradually burst at the seams with Gunn’s voice leading the charge. Coupled with some slight developments in melodic chops and more direct storytelling, its a record that should appeal to everyone who’s supported his trajectory thus far, again providing a new glance at the musician.
The emotional crux of the project is “Stonehurst Cowboy.” Whereas singles “Vagabond” and “New Moon” maybe continue Gunn’s love of imagery and raucous grooves, “Cowboy” is Gunn at his most emotionally naked. Inspired by his recently passed father, the song weaves a tale of young, strong men who are left behind by time. The homes where they made their impact on the world remain, yet the “faces are gone.” Without being too direct, the chorus beautifully captures the emotional color of a masculine relationship as Gunn realizes that time will eventually take his father away though they may not necessarily talk about those types of things forwardly: “Teach us right, all those steps/Before there’s nothing left/For all those cowboys in the world.”
Admittedly more cryptic, “Luciano” meditates on somewhat of a similar theme. Speaking about another fatherly(ish) figure, Gunn mentions the man’s dependency on friends and religion, and hopes that when he’s gone, that he’ll have the same kind of support system: “I hear him howling with his friends/Sometimes it’s Jesus who he calls/And you just hope that they’re all/There for you, just like he was there for me.”
This sheds a slightly different light on the loose beginning. The opening couplet (“It’s all right here on the floor/A sea of shadows by the door”) might refer to grief and “Roll the gate, turn your key/Unlock your golden song from me” maybe references how family visits can pull a lonely, aging person from the depths. “This is my first place…I’ll just hang and watch the light/Move slowly, with you” showcases how elders in communities become witnesses to time, both in the day-in-day-out sense and also in the year to year reality as younger folks grow up and leave the place, the changes in their appearance visible just as the changes in elements and season.
The rest of the album sports more direct songwriting and maybe showcases how Gunn will likely ease into the most mature portion of his career with more trademark chill jams. However, the man’s not completely done navigating new emotional territory and the band playing is some of the best heard in his songwriter era.