Steve Gunn has spoken before about the narrow virtues of believing in a simpler life: ‘I just wanna be this guy with my guitar, travelling around,’ he revealed in a 2019 interview, responding to a question about the financial pressures of being a low-profile act in a world of competing noise.
The Philadelphian was speaking after the release of The Unseen In Between, his fifth album and one as full of introspection lyrically as it was of tunes, a masterclass which hinted that an unlikely tangle with the mainstream was a real possibility.
For Gunn though, life is still better consumed at your pace, and on the face of it Other You is far from revolutionary in terms of adding to his canon.
Inspiration still sagely confounds, the mellifluous Fulton recalling the story of a local AM radio station going off-air in his adopted New York home. Instead of the FOMO this could’ve inspired, the singer is lost in the welcome silence, one he sees fit to punctuate with an atypically muscular guitar solo.
It’s a cliché he would almost certainly baulk at, but in venturing across the country to LA to record Other You with Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf it’s hard to shake the notion that the sunshine and Laurel Canyon vibes appear to have opened up a raft of new possibilities.
Drafting in a supporting cast of musicians who revel in craft as art – including Juliana Barwick, Mary Lattimore and Tortoise’s Jeff Parker – only gives more credence to the circle squaring notion that without trying, Gunn has become the troubadour’s troubadour.
Certainly, for a man who just wants to ply his trade, there’s some extreme wish-fulfillment going on here but, although the precepts are simple, there are layers at work, Morning River’s gently weaving keyboards and luxuriant piano hiding some gnostic lyrics (‘Celebrate your magic/Hermit of a sphere/Floating through the station with you/Hear it load and clear’), whilst the chilly synth washes that open up Good Wind complement Barwick’s spectral vocals, delivering some contemporary Americana of the finest grain.
Gems are around most corners: from the west coast to the Delta via some dreamy picking, Protection’s six minutes of lucid dreaming finally achieve what Other You threatens to do from its opening chords by outdoing The War On Drugs’ stateless MOR, conveying a laid-back seriousness which Adam Granduciel has managed to convince the world it can’t live without.
If it’s a chosen destination, then it’s certainly not a final one however; The Painter is airy, jazz-like percussion, a lightness of touch and eyes towards the horizon- ‘Roll it on, You can see it change/Speak in colours that call your name’ – whilst the dolorous Rhodes that so perfectly haunts Reflection seems to hail from Yacht-rock’s glassy archive peak.
Such is this admirable confidence to routinely change step that the understandably harp-laden collaboration with Lattimore, Sugar Kiss, is a revelatory side-turn, a synthesis of string loops, waxy undertow and experimentation that against the odds sits both completely without and totally within the album’s narrative arc.
It’s not an unfamiliar idea for a record to be greater than the sum of its parts, but Other You stretches the concept to the point of meaninglessness.
Steve Gunn has written some new songs, sung them, played guitar and invited a few friends to shake along on them too. That he’s so satisfyingly reached a fresh career high in doing so without trying is a feat that even he probably couldn’t explain, a victory for instinctively trusting both yourself and your process.