It seems there are more singer-songwriters than ever, but in the game there are levels; for every grinning, counterfeit troubadour there’s a Josh Tillman, a player with talent enough to burn but in possession of a raging appetite for biting the hand that feeds.
Steve Gunn’s journey into a reluctantly-taken spotlight has been more sedate but still not an archetypal one, a career quietly slipping through back doors with the light only occasionally catching him; work with, among others, the prolific indie act of god Kurt Vile has been only a fraction of his output over the last ten plus years.
On these roads less travelled he’s been able to nurture himself into much more than a dilettante picker and grinner, such that when 2016’s Eyes On The Lines looped the connective tissue of playing, singing and lyricising together satisfyingly it was arguably the first time he’d found an identity that was demonstrably his own.
Towards the end of its making Gunn’s father became ill and his subsequent passing informs one of The Unseen In Between’s finest moments in Stonehurst Cowboy, the title a reference to both the Philadelphia street on which he grew up and the man he shared it with, one wrenched by the desperate trauma of the war in Vietnam. Like the reluctant mourner himself it’s considered and thoughtful, functioning both as a story and a tribute, at times the tenderness raw and unsatisfied; ‘Sat for hours/stared at your flowers/found ways to hide the pain’.
Coping is a rabbit warren of perspectives. But if therapy it must be, then Gunn has perhaps chosen to adjust most by opening up his process, writing melodies and words together and working along with a live band including former Bob Dylan bassist Tony Garnier. Despite the changes, there’s still a welcome occasional lightness of touch; at his most laid back on Luciano the singer manages to make a ditty about a cat sound almost transcendent, a sideways look at the relationships we choose to form and their personal costs that lie in a rose garden of our weaknesses.
While overall the narrative is largely that of inhabitants out of time, on New Familiar the unpleasantly nascent intolerance of the outside world bloodily pierces the membrane, a song full of the anger in the post-Trump world of normal people lost to the modern age of screaming loudest by their refusal to accept either hate into their lives or the zero sum outcomes of naked prejudice.
At either end of this spectrum – the escapist fantasy of trusting to luck and the gloomy acknowledgment things may never be as they were before again – there is still a hope. Vagabond explores this trap, a diaphanous hard luck story which recalls The Smiths at their exquisite peak, whilst the invention of Lightning Field is the most conventional sounding, yet rewarding, jigsaw piece of a record that woos the listener soft but long.
The Unseen In Between is like that not because Gunn has chosen to do anything other than act as a cipher for what pours out of him, like an artist dripping his mind onto a whatever counts as a canvas.
Haunted but at peace, he’s becoming more essential with every step.