“Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” – Jose Ortega
For Noah Gundersen, the past few years have brought about immense growth and change, both as an artist and as a young man grappling with issues of identity and independence. It should come as little surprise, then, that his stunning new album, ‘Carry The Ghost,’ is so heavily influenced by existential philosophy. What’s so striking, though, is hearing a 25-year-old articulate such weighty themes, packaging them into heartbreakingly gorgeous melodies with a plainspoken language that cuts to the quick upon first listen. Then again, Noah Gundersen has never aimed for ordinary.
Though only a little more than a year has passed since the 2014 release of ‘Ledges,’ ‘Carry The Ghost’ finds an older, more sophisticated Gundersen attempting the difficult work of unraveling our purpose here, searching for answers about the nature of man and the meaning of our relationships. Gundersen came to an understanding of himself as the sum of his experiences, a view he embraces as a positive one and which led him to delve into the works of existentialist writers and philosophers like Ortega. For Gundersen, the personal history that shapes each and every one of us is the titular ghost, and it’s the thread that ties the entire record together.
The album’s more ambitious scale showcases a natural evolution following the success of ‘Ledges,’ which earned raves everywhere from NPR’s World Café to CBS Saturday Morning. Hailed as a “powerful debut” by SPIN, the record delivered on the promise of a string of previous EPs, which poetically tackled issues of faith and doubt and loss and desire as Gundersen transitioned into adulthood. It earned him a devoted national fan base, with many introduced to his music through placements on popular television series like ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ where his introspective and brooding songs proved to be an invaluable piece of the storytelling.
With ‘Carry The Ghost,’ Gundersen once again looked inward to find inspiration. “This album grew out of a desire to know myself, to know how I was supposed to live,” he explains. “And in that process, I realized that maybe there is no ‘supposed to be.’ The concept of ‘Carry The Ghost’ is that we’re made by our experiences and to accept that instead of fighting it. The last several years have been a process of accepting things as they are and to not see them as so black and white or right or wrong, to accept that we’re not made to be a certain way, but that we are involved in an ongoing process of becoming.”
Recorded at Seattle’s Litho Studio, ‘Carry The Ghost’ explores issues of self-discovery and existentialism with an erudite sophistication across 13 magnificent tracks. Collaborating more than ever before with his touring band—which includes his sister Abby and brother Jonathan—Gundersen set out to push boundaries and confound expectations, experimenting with tone and structure and creating rich sonic textures that ebb and flow beneath his stirring, solemn voice.
The album opens with “Slow Dancer,” a haunting piano meditation on the anger and frustration that can often be a part of the process of healing from a broken heart. “Light me up again if it makes you feel free,” he sings. Dramatic as it can be, this is not an album about conflict, but rather acceptance and understanding. “Why try and fix it?” he asks on “The Difference.” “Maybe you were made this way / Maybe the pieces were intentionally different.” Later in the album, he strives to “understand the space between the man and the mirror,” and on “Show Me The Light,” he looks to his first love and recognizes, “You were the worst and the best thing that happened to me.”
“With ‘Show Me The Light’ in particular, there’s a dualism that shaped me and I’m ultimately grateful for, even though it was painful,” says Gundersen. “There are good things to be taken from most bad things. Again, that’s the idea of embracing our history.”
“There’s a social and religious tendency to see ourselves as inherently broken and in need of fixing,” he continues, “and this is me challenging that idea, saying, ‘Maybe we were made this way and maybe we are not actually broken and maybe it’s okay that we don’t have the answers.'”
While Biblical references have frequently played a role in Gundersen’s songwriting, he casts off his last subconscious bonds to religion in “Empty From The Start,” which plays out as something of an existentialist manifesto. “This is all we have / This is all we are / Blood and bones no holy ghost / Empty from the start,” he sings. But rather than leading him to embrace nihilism, the revelation causes Gundersen to find more meaning than ever in humankind, and brings out a new degree of selflessness, as he concludes, “The only thing worth loving more than me is loving you.”
“If we are ultimately alone and there is no God and no one will ever truly know what’s going on inside of us, I think the most valuable thing we can do is to at least attempt to know someone,” he explains. “And that’s what I think love is, whether it’s romantic love or familial or simply friendship or companionship. To make someone else feel slightly less alone, and in that process become slightly less alone yourself, that to me seems like one of the few truly valuable things that we can do in this life.”
The concepts of value and meaning are clearly ones that occupied much of Gundersen’s consciousness during the writing of the album. He tackles the notions on “Selfish Art,” asking, “Am I giving all that I can give? Am I earning the right to live?”
“I think that’s a question that I’ve come to terms with more recently,” he says. “I realized while writing these songs that so much of what I do in life as a professional artist, the idea of getting paid to talk about your feelings, is inherently selfish and narcissistic. While I do believe in the transformative nature of art, I have to be conscious of not becoming self-obsessed, which can come so easily.”
It’s a difficult balance, but perhaps the greatest triumph of ‘Carry The Ghost’ is that Gundersen pulls it off with a seemingly effortless refinement. This is the sound of a songwriter looking inward to look outward, accepting his limitations to liberate himself. It’s the sound of an artist pushing himself mentally and musically to understand his place in the world and seize control of it, and in doing so, illuminating a portrait in which others may see themselves. If Ortega is to be believed, ‘Carry The Ghost’ is the sum sound of Noah Gundersen’s past, but it’s also nothing short of a thrilling preview of his future.