There’s a moment near the beginning of Noah Gundersen’s fantastic debut album, called Ledges, where the singer/songwriter just lets loose. The song in question, a traditional Appalachian folk-like reverie called “Poor Man’s Son,” dwells for most of its runtime in a stripped down a cappella setting, Gundersen’s voice melding with his sister’s to create a sound that is instantly timeless. It feels like something that should have been on one of the T. Bone Burnett-helmed Coen Brothers soundtracks, Gundersen’s voice and style leaning more toward the recent Inside Llewyn Davis and his sister Abby’s Emmylou Harris impression – not to mention the song’s decision to directly quote from “Down in the River to Pray” – coming more from the fertile traditional music ground of O Brother Where Art Thou. The combination, frankly, is every bit as stunning as it sounds, with lyrics like “I’ve got money for food and a little bit of gasoline” gliding out like something that would have sounded equally at home in the Great Depression as it does in the current economic recession.
For most of its runtime, “Poor Man’s Son” is a slow-burn lo-fi folk song, wrapping listeners in its warm and calming Americana, and building a house of gentle, buoyant sound around them. But being a poor man’s son ain’t about being comfortable or building a warm and welcoming house; rather, it’s about striking a match and burning that house to the ground because that’s the only thing you can do to stay warm, and that’s precisely what Gundersen does at the song’s peak. “But I don’t need no gold or silver,” Gundersen wails at the top of his lungs, his voice causing the microphone to crackle. “Oh, I only need a few new things/Oh, I would buy pearls for my lover/Or just a brand new set of guitar strings.”
The way Gundersen sings those final lines, with torrential, hurricane force, is similar to the reckless emotional abandon we’ve heard on recent folk albums from the likes of the Civil Wars, Glen Hansard, and the Lone Bellow. And just like on those albums, this rousing, plaintive moment of emotion hits like a punch to the gut because it comes at the end of a long, restrained crescendo. I described “Poor Man’s Son” above as a reverie, and that’s precisely what it is, right up until Gundersen throws his voice into a higher register, breaks the spell, and demands a new description. The dreamlike quality of “Poor Man’s Son” takes us back to simpler times, times when recording technology was just developing and when artists had to stand on their own talent rather than on the dollar amount they paid for their computer software. This is the kind of music we need to be hearing right now, and on Ledges, Gundersen is here to provide it. He might not be able to afford new guitar strings, and he’s quite sure there’s going to be trouble along the way, but fuck it, there’s going to be music anyway.
All of this is just a long, roundabout way of describing the feeling that Ledges inspires in me, which is that Noah Gundersen is a songwriter with a timeless talent and a peerless ability to tap into the everyday struggles of people who are still surviving stone cold broke in the middle of the winter. That’s not to say that the whole album is about being poor, though: throughout these 11 songs, Gundersen charts thematic territory ranging from death and alcoholism to the most egregious of heartbreaks. Plenty of songwriters have explored those very topics before, but the way Gundersen does it, with wavering vulnerability that you can hear in his voice, in his words, in the way he strums his guitar, it’s the reason that those topics will never stop hitting hard when delivered by people eloquent to describe their exquisite pain.
Take the title track, a heart-wrenching rumination on what it means to love someone who you don’t think you deserve. The character in this song has lost so much faith in himself that it’s pushed him up onto a ledge, and whether that ledge is literal or metaphorical doesn’t matter because the words here are strong enough to kill by themselves. “I’ve got a lot of loose ends, I’ve done some damage/I’ve cut the rope so it frayed/And I’ve got a lot of close friends, keeping me distracted/Keeping my sanity safe,” Gundersen sings at the song’s outset. He continues to put himself down throughout the song, from doubting his own free will (“I drink a little too much and it makes me nervous/I’ve got my grandfather’s blood”) to wondering if he even has the ability to connect with another person (“I want to know how to love/Not just the feeling”). When he delivers the song’s core message on the chorus, that he’s just trying to be a better man for the person he loves, his voice wavers. It’s a small, subtle factor, but it sells the song and cuts right to the bone.
Moments like that one abound throughout this record, from the parting lovers of “Boathouse” to the cheating lovers of “Isaiah.” Gundersen’s greatest strengths are the lyrical, and though he writes short and simple poetry, his words convey sharp devastation and utter honesty in a way that only the best songwriters can. In that regard, he’s a bit like Jason Isbell and Donovan Woods, two other recent favorites of mine who never seem to pull their punches when it comes to setting a scene.
Other musical influences are everywhere, from Hansard (the somber beauty that is “Poison Vine” could easily have been pulled from the Once soundtrack) to Ryan Adams (“Dying Now,” which might as well be a b-side from Adams’ last record, Ashes & Fire, for how much Gundersen sounds like the former Whiskeytown frontman). On his best songs, though, Gundersen sells his talents in a way that invites no comparison. Case in point is “First Defeat,” a heartbreaking song about two dysfunctional lovers who just can’t seem to quit each other. Gundersen’s delivery is aces, growing to another bellowed climax on the bridge, but the weapon once again is the lyrics, which string together one devastating line (“And you discover that home is not a person or place/But a feeling you can’t get back”) after another (“It’s the little things that convince me to stay/It’s your fingertips, and the music they play”). Similarly effective is “Liberator,” where Gundersen tries to convince himself that he’s not in love with someone that he clearly can’t stop thinking about. A lilting falsetto on the bridge seals the deal, and the line “Love will record our soul on the side” is the kind of mixtape gold that makes this record as much a pleasure on a song-by-song basis as it is for a cohesive whole.
Ledges is the kind of record that sounds great from the very first listen, but over time, as Gundersen’s words begin to cut deeper and take root, it transcends the mere prettiness that is so often the bread and butter of singer/songwriter records. There’s a feeling of profound sadness in these songs, and Gundersen’s haunted delivery – whether he’s in whisper mode or pulling into full-blown emotive catharsis – makes them virtually impossible to shake once you’ve listened a few times. Frankly, Ledges would be a stunning accomplishment coming from anyone, but as a full-length solo debut album (Gundersen has been around for a bit, but his music has come in the form of full-band projects or solo EPs), it’s simply astounding. It’s an album that should bring this songwriter’s powerful talent to the big leagues for the first time, and whether you compare him to Ryan Adams, Glen Hansard, or someone else, the simple fact that he can already stand shoulder to shoulder with the modern folk music greats is sign enough that there are great things to come for Noah Gundersen.