Seattle’s son, Noah Gundersen is an ambitious young gun. His first solo release, Brand New World, dropped in 2008. Since then he’s released two projects with his now-defunct band, The Courage, and two successive EPs under his solo banner. And he’s 25 years old.
A lot of Gundersen’s appeal is derived from the intrigue of his duality. He belongs to an elite class of indie voices from the borderlines of messy spirituality, maintaining an equidistant removal from either end of the faith/doubt spectrum. He’s positioned with his foot at the base of the theological stairwell, neck craned up to the next few steps of transcendent spiritual energy where stand David Bazan with his post-Protestant ruminations, Sufjan Stevens with his Old Testament references, and John Darnielle with his mad-scientist output of alternating scriptures and obscenities.
His theistic acknowledgements on Ledges are more implicit than previous name-drops (see: “Jesus, Jesus”) but this jarring juxtaposition of the traditional Western ideals of the sacred and profane manifests throughout this record, true to form. “Poor Man’s Son” contains an interjectory Coen brothers hymn. Lyrics from “Isaiah” seem to be sung from a barstool as he quotes the Bible verse tattooed on his muse’s bare arm. “Liberator” references “seeing Jesus in a time of doubt.” All the while, there’s enough booze, tobacco, sex drive, and sailors’ talk for the whole family.
Fans have sought master recordings of “Poor Man’s Son” and “Cigarettes” for years, both tunes being integral to Gundersen’s live show for quite a while and incidentally, highlights of the album. The former, a chain gang soul song, is a howling, one-take family affair around two microphones. The latter may as well be a misplaced Neil Young track with a lugubrious harmonica and the album’s best lyrics: “You don’t make me cool/I can get along fine without you/You’re a Spirit, you can’t be beat/but when I’m jonesin’, honey I buy cheap.”
The clever turns of phrase and sanguine finger-picking of “Isaiah” make it sound like a missing cut from the “Family” EP, and Noah’s whisky voice is at its best on “Separator” over a backdrop of bluesy, minor-third-rich guitar/fiddle interplay with sister Abby’s delicate shade of harmony in its right place. The album’s namesake “Ledges” acts as Gundersen’s undisguised macro-premise in the form of an old-country drunkard’s prayer with inhibited self-actualization marked by self-deprecation.
Ledges marks Noah’s long-playing debut, much to the anticipatory glee of his cult following, and it serves as an interesting study of the LP’s niche in the digital age and the EP-culture that permeates the postmodern independent music community. None of his previous records contained more than seven songs. Ledges has eleven, and that is precisely its problem. Half a dozen songs are golden; the rest are bronzish and tarnished. The songs not aforementioned seem to drift out of focus in a nebulous montage of differently-capoed second-position guitar chords and a collegiate perspective on over-drinking as a novelty worth mentioning once or twice or almost perpetually.
Not to say there aren’t coruscating spots: the violin riff on “Boathouse,” the angsty, interpersonal conflict skillfully woven throughout “Liberator,” and Abby’s surreally innocent voice cameoing on “Dying Now” all perk up our appetent ears. But the lamentable reality is that half of the songs on Ledges seem to have been collected afterthoughts to fill out a long-playing record, whereas the highlights would have served to compile a near-perfect EP.
However, whether or not Noah Gundersen believes in grace, we’re ready to extend some. He’s proven his chops time and again as a more consequential writer than his peers in the white-guys-with-acoustic-guitars arena, and he promises he’s on the trail to becoming a better man. We look with contemplative expectancy to the future he’s writing for himself and the other ledges he will inevitably crest.