I’ve interviewed Noah Gundersen two times in the past and both conversations centered around his restlessness concerning his art. The first time I spoke with him, ahead of the release of 2015’s Carry the Ghost, he told me how his debut album, the previous year’s folk-steeped Ledges, no longer reflected who he was or the music he wanted to make. In 2017, when we chatted about his audacious, adventurous third LP White Noise, it was the songs from the spiritually fraught Ghost that he was ready to move on from. “I just think I’m perpetually dissatisfied, which can be really frustrating,” he said. “But it also drives my creativity and my desire to do better and to make things that are better than what I’ve made in the past.”
On his fourth record, titled Lover (and released on the same day as an album by Taylor Swift that shares the exact same name), Gundersen seems perhaps more comfortable with letting his restlessness slide than he ever has before. The collection is at once both unique from everything he’s ever made previously and packed with songs that call back to previous moments from his catalog. There are raw acoustic songs that feel ripped from the cloth of the traditionally-hewn Ledges. Lead single “Robin Williams,” with its fractious electric guitar chords, plays like a twin to Carry the Ghost’s first single and lead-off track “Slow Dancer.” “Out of Time” initiates flashbacks to the Radiohead influences that blossomed all over White Noise. The entire Noah Gundersen toolkit, it seems, is fair game on this album.
On White Noise, it felt like Gundersen was eager not just to find a new route on the musical map, but to burn the map entirely and start over from scratch. The result was a fascinating, beguiling, occasionally frustrating album. It’s a record packed with truly exceptional songs that, as a full piece of art, is more fun to talk about and think about than it actually is to listen to. To me, it was the sound of Gundersen’s restlessness starting to get in the way of his remarkable talent as an emotional, confessional songwriter. The album struggled to find cohesion amidst its sizable ambitions.
Lover, by contrast, is arguably the most intimate, personal, and honest record that Noah has ever made. That’s saying something for an artist who spent his first album crafting some of the most gutting break-up songs of the decade, and whose second album detailed a crisis of faith in such vivid detail that it felt like you were living it. But Lover is somehow less guarded than both of those records. It strips away the inherent performative-ness that comes with being a singer-songwriter and instead puts you right there into Gundersen’s un-self-conscious brain. Many of the songs—especially the aching, painfully gorgeous “Audrey Hepburn”—feel like fever-dream remembrances of times long past. Noah has gone on record saying that he started going to therapy in between White Noise and the writing and recording sessions for this record. “It has changed my perspective about the permanence of things,” he told the Seattle Times. “I take myself less seriously, which as a singer-songwriter is much needed.”
Listeners won’t immediately label Lover as a “less serious” record than its predecessors, if only because it storms out of the gate with some of his most emotionally vulnerable songwriting ever. “Robin Williams” is a song about a lot of things: love, anxiety, making a living in the entertainment industry, trying to craft honest art, grappling with the doldrums of mental health struggles. It’s a dark and pointed place to start the record, and a brave choice as a lead single. But by evoking the image and spirit of one of the world’s most beloved entertainers—a man who made everyone laugh but was deeply wounded and broken inside—Noah finds a way to invite us deeper into his world than ever before. We champion songwriters who sing about heartbreak and sadness because their songs feel like welcome bedfellows in our darkest times. But how can we celebrate those songs without sparing a thought for the heartbreak, trauma, or depression that may have led to their creation?
Perhaps it was therapy that inspired Noah to ask these types of questions, or at least point them out to his audience. Lover certainly feels like a therapy session in a lot of ways, which helps imbue it with the unguarded, stream-of-consciousness feel that pervades many of the songs. Noah turned 30 in May, and there’s a sense in these songs of recognizing the passage of time and how age might shift your perspective on things—especially romance. “I don’t need no lover” he sings on the title track, and it’s the kind of thing a twentysomething chasing adventures and thrills and the opposite of stability might say. But then in the next line, he reconsiders: “But I sure like keeping you around.” And maybe that’s what the album is about: realizing what you want in life, getting fed up with the loneliness of young adulthood, and making a choice to choose something—or someone—else.
It’s a decision that leads Noah to write what he’s described as his Lloyd Dobler song with “Lose You,” an unapologetic proclamation of love that you can just imagine someone playing on a boombox outside a lover’s window, trying to win them back. “Think about you every day, wonder how you’ve been/I wonder what you’re doing now/Red wine on canvas, the color of your hair/Maybe we could make it somehow.” So many of Noah’s past songs, especially the love songs, have felt dejected, broken, sorrowful, sad. They’ve found him on the cusp of a relationship’s end or trying to get over its wreckage. Here, he sounds genuinely hopeful, like there might be something on the next page or in the next scene that isn’t just more sad songs on a lonely stage.
Lover finds a beautiful balance between that sense of hope and the creeping fear of being alone forever. And some of the songs are incredibly lonely. “Watermelon” finds Noah singing about the “bad times,” “…where I got sick and threw up in my mouth/At the thought of ever missing out/On the bright blue world and all the beautiful girls in it.” But by the end of the song, he’s resolving to make a change: “This hole in my chest won’t let me rest/So I’m trying my best to fill it with you.”
It’s heartening that the album also features the most euphoric Noah Gundersen song ever in the penultimate slot. “All My Friends” is a rave-up about living it up on the weekends and “closing down the bar, getting high school drunk.” Sometimes, it’s okay to burn away the loneliness with alcohol and friends, and with the glow of a night that has lots of hours left until closing time and plenty of possibilities in the interim. “Me and all of my friends, gonna live forever,” Noah sings over and over again in the back half of the song, joined by new voices with each refrain. It doesn’t matter if the statement isn’t actually true; for the three minutes and 19 seconds that the song lasts, you believe it is—and you believe that Noah believes it, too. He’s said this record is about love, and failure, and drugs, and sex, and age, and regret, and finding peace. Here, he’s found that peace. It might not last forever, but it’s a start.