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Steve Gunn - The Unseen in Between Music Album Reviews

Though he rose to early acclaim as a fingerstyle guitarist, the singer/songwriter is steadily developing into a poignant lyricist, now chronicling the places and people he hopes to understand.

“Stonehurst Cowboy” sounds like a new kind of song for Steve Gunn. A gifted guitarist who happens to be developing into an even more gifted songwriter, the Philly-born, Brooklyn-based musician has written often about motion and travel: the life of the observer rather than the participant, viewing the world through the windshield. But “Stonehurst Cowboy,” an early beauty from Gunn’s The Unseen in Between, is more about the destination than the journey, and that destination is his late father’s former neighborhood in West Philadelphia. “Dear house near 69th/Old street looks the same,” he sings over a spiky, finger-picked theme. “Trees are strong, faces are gone/Background is still the same.” He sketches out his father’s tough time there, the stolen cars and hard drugs, but there’s no pity to Gunn’s voice. Instead, the song conveys a quiet wonder that the kid became such a good father, with wise counsel: “Call his name,” Gunn offers with a pause in the chorus. “He knows best.”

Gunn’s father and namesake died in 2016, two weeks after Gunn released Eyes on the Lines, a biographical note that instills “Stonehurst Cowboy” with a sense of reckoning. The tune doesn’t reveal much about him, especially compared to what his son has disclosed in recent interviews—like the one he did with Ryley Walker, where he talked about how his dad would smuggle booze into Eagles game or the one with NPR which explains how he was drafted but never sent to Vietnam. These are compelling details, but they’re purposefully omitted from “Stonehurst Cowboy.” It’s about everything the son didn’t get about his father. Gunn knows that it’s what we don’t know about our loved ones—their inner turmoils, those dark pockets—that tug at our imagination. This is where the dead live, in that unseen in-between.

He is just one of many complicated, mysterious characters on The Unseen in Between. Inspired by Agnes Varda’s film of the same name, “Vagabond” paints vivid, sympathetic portraits of characters Gunn might have met out on the road. He sings like he’s scrolling through old photos on his phone, looking at the faces of people he’ll never see again. Still, The Unseen in Between may be his most stationary album, with as many songs about being somewhere as getting somewhere, as with the old haunts of the “Stonehurst Cowboy.” Likewise, “Luciano” is a tender acoustic portrait of a bodega owner and his cat. “New Familiar” takes in the city around Gunn, its bustle of people, its flurry of noises, conveying awe at how the place can change constantly yet remain the same.

His playing on “New Familiar” is streamlined, indulging a subtle flurry of grace notes; the impression is one of elegant concision, an almost ascetic approach to the guitar. As an instrumentalist, Gunn often packs light: just the notes he needs and little more, the least ostentatious guitar hero imaginable. Yet, his playing on The Unseen in Between never fails to evoke that sense of expected movement, so it occasionally sounds like this traveler is simply staying in his lane. Even closer “Paranoid,” with its churchly piano and distorted rumbles, sounds naggingly familiar, as if we have been here before. “A hand-drawn map provides the facts,” he sings in what may be the quintessential Steve Gunn line. Maybe that’s the peril of songwriters who sings about journeys: The more you move, the more you can’t help but learn where all those back roads lead.


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