Noah Gundersen, for as long as I’ve been aware of him, has been my quintessential example of an artist whose art clearly depicts his departure from faith. He shares honestly about his doubts much more than his beliefs. He is a creator who is comfortable wrestling with his personal development through life’s greatest pains. Gundersen does this publicly in his published work. He blesses and challenges his fans with his sincerity.
In a September 2019 interview with KEXP’s John Richards, Gundersen recognized the fact that elements of his “journey with faith” showed up thematically in his earlier music but that he is “not religious at all.” Though that seems to have been perfectly true when he said it and may even have been true at the beginning of his career, it is not difficult to find evidence online that may belie the statement, as in this early recording of the Gundersen Family singing the Doxology. Further, as of the posting of this review, Gundersen’s Spotify artist profile begins, “Born to a devoutly religious family in Olympia, WA, Noah Gundersen…” without any additional information framing the significance of the fact. It is safe to assume that there is significance in the statement, a significance that is surely known by his close family and friends and guessed at by those of us with the patience to read into the stark pain and unassuming nuance of his lyrics.
I was personally introduced to Gundersen in college, when my roommate shared with me the music video for ‘Fire’. He liked the song for what it was (I certainly did too), and he asked me if I thought that Gundersen was a Christian, based solely on the lyrics of this song. I listened closely and told him, “No.” It seemed clear that Gundersen came from a Christian background, but based on the lyrics, it also appeared that he was deeply disillusioned by the faith and critical of religious hypocrisies. I quickly found ‘Jesus, Jesus’ on Gundersen’s Saints and Liars EP, which, like ‘Fire’, could have been a loving critique of Christian culture and theology, but read more obviously as an indictment. ‘Isaiah’ on Ledges is another cutting argument against the hypocrisies of the nominally religious, and such a reference could only be made by someone steeped in scripture and Christian culture.
Gundersen’s songs can often be read as at least semi-autobiographical, though there are many that clearly should not be. He invites his audience, in more than a few instances, to read him into his lyrics as the speaker. Much of what his music says can be read as said by Gundersen, not by some intermediary or fictional speaker.
With this information, it was clear to me that Gundersen had grown up in a Christian home (a fact settled with little research). Further, it was clear to me that Gundersen was pushed away from the faith by his issues with the inconsistencies between what believers preached and what they practiced, as well as some difficulties arising from the Problem of Evil. He also seemed to be pulled away from the faith by the temptations of sex, drugs, and various pleasures, which are consistently referenced throughout his music.
Up through his fourth studio album, Gundersen was willing to engage with the tension between faith and doubt, and though he may have had valid arguments against the Church and her teachings, he kept airing those arguments and did not explicitly forsake his religious upbringing. That was until Carry the Ghost and ‘Empty from the Start’. The song is nothing more than an ode to a nihilistic atheism with lyrics that read, “This is all we have, this is all we are: blood and bones, no Holy Ghost, empty from the start. There is nothing you can do, honey, nothing you can do to save me.” These words broke my heart when I heard Gundersen sing them. I felt that he shut a door that was never meant to be closed.
The only thread holding these lyrics from falling into an oblivion of meaninglessness is, “I’ve been finding the only thing worth loving more than me is loving you… To truly love someone is the closest I have come to truth.” Gundersen, for what it is worth (which may end up being worth a lot), would not let go of life entirely. If there is meaning or truth in our human experience, he intuits and feels that it must be found in love. There are worse places to land; at least here there is still something to keep under your feet.
I may be attracted to art that is willing to wrestle honestly with doubt, but I tend to become very bored by the surety of empty meaninglessness, with or without the last strand of love glistening in the darkness. And so I remained disappointed and bored with Gundersen’s next album, WHITE NOISE. I kept listening because I had always respected Gundersen’s sincere lyrics, and though his music changed distinctly in theme and sound, I was still interested enough to stick with him.
If I was disappointed by Carry the Ghost and bored by WHITE NOISE, I was astounded by Lover, the next album in the discography. Lover does not see Gundersen find faith; quite the opposite. The album is a brutal look at a life desperate for, but lacking any meaning. There may seem to be nothing good or beautiful in this album, but certainly there is truth. Horrible truth. I have listened to Lover a lot, and it hurts to hear the words each and every time. There is perhaps a masochism involved in it, to return again and again to that pain, but I believe my patient interest in Gundersen’s lyrical progression was rewarded with his most recent album.
Having introduced Gundersen’s discography and the evolution of themes in his music, I am now ready to review his latest effort, A Pillar of Salt, released October 8, 2021. Our reading of the album will benefit from an understanding of its predecessors, as laid out above.
A Pillar of Salt begins with ‘Laurel and Hardy’, a song that introduces its listener to one of the recurring themes of the album: disjointed pairs and unbalanced relational power. The speaker imprisons his beloved in his heart, but it is she who holds the keys and has a tidal power over the speaker’s shifting waters. His is the unconditional surrender; blinded and helpless he can’t help but let her slip through his fingers. She is his “favorite poison,” his “honeybee sting.” He willingly accepts the reality of martyrdom, dying for her sake. Why? Because he found something along the way, something given and mysterious and unsought: Faith.
I took up thе mantle of unshakable faith.
On the road to Damascus, I fеll to my face.
The speaker directly compares himself to the Apostle Paul, a man who was accosted by the risen Christ, the unwitting inheritor of forgiveness, grace, power, and truth. Gundersen can hardly stay away from scriptural references and metaphor. These dropped in frequency on previous albums, but A Pillar of Salt (to say nothing of the title itself) begins with a direct and obvious nod to the Bible. What the speaker has faith in is too difficult to say, but there it is.
The song ends with a masterful use of musical flair. It finishes on an unresolved note, turning upward with a hopeful tone, but paired with the dangling lyrics “my unanswered question.” Again this first song introduces a theme that will carry us through the album. There is something unresolved and uncertain, an unanswered question, something that haunts Gundersen, something he cannot let go, even if he tried on ‘Empty from the Start’. Reckless living did nothing to erase the feeling that there may be something worth the sacrifice, something more than blood and bones, something filling the emptiness.
That reckless living was meant to fill the emptiness or, more honestly, to numb the pain of believing there is emptiness back of all. Even from an outsider’s perspective, Gundersen seems to have lived pretty fast and loose throughout his 20s, as suggested quite clearly in his music itself. Though it could have been from any innocent accident, one wonders what behavior got Gundersen the black eye captured in a recording session with Phoebe Bridgers. And this reviewer can personally attest that as recently as October 2019, Gundersen was ending his show by downing a bottle of Jameson with his bandmates during the encore.
So it may sound strange to those who are aware of Gundersen’s history to hear him suggest that he needs to get out of his head and back to experiencing life in the album’s second song, ‘Body’. What has he been doing if not living hedonistically through the body? But perhaps only after cleansing himself of all those numbing agents can he reflect on a life lived in reality.
When he clears his head and looks around at the world, he sees it burning, on his social media feed and in news headlines. “There’s too much information” and “whatever happens is probably gonna happen anyway,” so let’s not get too worked up about everything going on out there. Let’s focus on our own actual, physical, personal lives. Gundersen relishes the release of responsibility to the digitally-mediated wider world, abandonment of life-via-cellphone. He says, “I wanna put it down, look around, and just let myself feel it. When the world was a bonfire, you wanted to dance around it.” Whatever is happening out there, even if it is all burning down, we do better to enjoy what we can through our own acute and un-numbed senses.
‘Body’ ends with the words, “But if I told you then what you could have been, would you have turned around? Would you have listened?” There is something hopeful here, especially coming at the end of this song. What better life could have been lived if we would only break away from the straight-line, destructive course of living with our social-media blinders on? That said, there is also something foreboding in these lines.
On an album titled A Pillar of Salt, we do well to beware of calls to “turn around.” If there’s a real tension in the last lines of this song, we should feel confident that Gundersen wrote it purposefully. From his back catalog, we know he is far too thoughtful when it comes to biblical references for us to think this happened accidentally. We also know that he is unafraid of irreverently subverting biblical wisdom. So, the speaker finds hope at the same time that the listener is aware of this incipient dramatic irony. Is this the turning of repentance or of a doomed nostalgia? What will win in the end: the will of a man awake to reality for the first time in years or the unseen powers of providential fate? A Pillar of Salt is awash in these questions.
The next song, ‘The Coast’, is a recitation of the oldest themes Gundersen has employed in his music. He feels a relational responsibility to those he cares for deeply. And just as deeply, he feels a hopeless ineptitude at doing it well. Whether it is due to a lack of personal power or overwhelming external forces, it is so difficult to live life well and responsibly for the people around us. Best to look to our ultimate end knowing that at least we had some good intentions.
But Gundersen knows that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions (metaphorically, of course, as we will soon see that Hell is anathema to him). The tension remains in that he wants to live life well because he thinks that it matters, but that it is too hard and meaningless to live life well, so it really doesn’t matter. He craves the responsibility of meaning and fears the meaningless of even trying, like a proper millennial would. The theme is drawn to a close for this song and ushers in the related but distinct theme of the next with the words, “I would have gone on fighting for the rest of my life, too anxious to live, but too stubborn to die.”
In Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, the modern thinker is challenged to understand the paradox between essentialist and existentialist approaches to life. Tillich contends that the mere fact of existence, that there is something rather than nothing, ought to be enough to find the courage to face the unknown, to live life peacefully, to continue existing in a confusing and often dispiriting world. Gundersen, whether he is consciously aware of it or not, echoes Tillich’s philosophy in ‘Exit Signs’, what should be seen as the album’s early climax.
There may be multiple logical conclusions come to after the meaninglessness of life is accepted, after a Nietzschen resolution, but one of the more obvious and despairing results would be suicide. ‘Exit Signs’ acknowledges this head on. The exit signs on the road of life are all those chances to end things, to pull the pin of the hand grenade. “Cause if you burn it down, you still get to dance around the ashes like you’re not too old to party… It’s only for a moment, then it’s gone in a blaze of glory.” But what the moment is and who is dancing around what is very difficult to define. When exactly does one who no longer exists get to relish the loss of what also no longer exists for him?
Gundersen is consistent enough to reject this logic; he has enough courage to be to avoid his own suicide. He clearly states, “But down in the afterglow, all this letting go is just another thing you’re holding on to.” Suicide, if analyzed with dispassionate logic (one philosophical argument far too involved and divisive to treat fully here), is the acceptance that non-existence is better than existence. A primary issue with the decision to end one’s life is that there is no positive philosophy or comprehensive logic that can come to this conclusion. We have no means of establishing the value of non-existence, as it constantly and stubbornly remains a non-thing. The atheist suicide would hold onto the letting go as a positive thing, but then, the letting go is the thing. The result of the letting go, the final destination, is no thing. There is no logical way to say that the non-existence of death is preferable to the existence of life; they are utterly incomparable.
Gundersen cannot bring himself to suicide. Why? He still believes in an essential reality that cuts through the existential meaninglessness; even though life is hard; even though, existentially, it’s nearly impossible. “All my best intentions still go wrong. But I’m still trying. I still believe in love. That just might be good enough.” What keeps him holding on? What remains a more ultimate truth? Love. The love that he could not abandon in ‘Empty from the Start’ is what disallows a suicidal end for a man who has lived an otherwise self-destructive life.
Before we are led out of the song with a final repetition of the chorus, the bridge stuns us with a thematically charged punch. It reads:
I’m never gonna not feel a little lost.
I always have, I think I probably always will.
I’m not looking for a cause. I don’t believe in God.
I don’t believe in Heaven, I sure don’t believe in Hell.
I don’t need you to save me ’cause I don’t wanna be saved.
I just need a little time in a quiet place
’cause I think I could stay and not throw this away.
Please, just give me today.
Feeling lost, Gundersen recognizes that there may be a path that he should be on as opposed to the road he has taken. In a self-consistent self-defeating atheistic logic, he claims not to believe in the ultimate tenets of what must compose an objective reality, though he has already admitted that he feels lost in what cannot be a purely subjective world. He doesn’t need to be found and saved, not because he rejects the reality that he might be lost, but because he just doesn’t want to recognize any objectivity. He wants a little more time to come to a godless understanding of a meaningful life. He just needs a little more time. And as he keeps seeking more and more time to find the end of a circle, he knows that he will always keep asking for a little more time as his life slips away.
Before moving on, we should note the curious construction of the fourth line quoted above. We know from his catalog that Gundersen does not believe in God. This is no surprise. That he does not believe in Heaven or Hell should come as no surprise either. But in adding “sure,” a dismissive and definitive qualifier of his disbelief in Hell, Gundersen is telling us, perhaps unconsciously (though probably not), that he has tiered these beliefs by level of surety. He does not believe in God or Heaven because these things just don’t seem likely given the brokenness of the world and the Problem of Evil. That said, he can in no way believe in Hell because of what he understands as a self-contradiction within Christian theology. Even if God exists, if God is good, so understands the Universalist, Hell cannot be real. This is what Gundersen is saying. God is unlikely. But then, unlikely is not impossible. If God is improbable, according to Gundersen’s logic, Hell is not unlikely in the same sense, but properly illogical and impossible.
If the door is left cracked open for God, though we thought it was shut, the terror of Hell is definitely closed off. Gundersen has allowed that God is more likely and more possible than other religious ideas, not absolutely impossible. God may exist, even though Gundersen has explicitly said that he does not believe that is the case. This is a startling and remarkable suggestion by someone who has held to a sure atheism since ‘Empty from the Start’. We do well to keep this in mind while analyzing the rest of the album.
The following song, ‘Atlantis’, is one more iteration of A Pillar of Salt’s major themes: unequal relational power and wrestling with the meaninglessness of life. It is a duet with Phoebe Bridgers, a singer-songwriter who has also openly wrestled with her inability to believe in God. The first verse is a grotesque depiction of the irrationality of human emotion. The second is a confrontation of life without purpose, direction, or a love that makes sense of the world. Our pair of forlorn singers go on to describe the pitiful attempts of immature lovers to discover something deeper than the materialistic junk from which modern life is composed.
In relation to their failure to make sense of life, there is something profoundly disturbed within them, and they struggle to find an explanation. Going to an array of doctors, professionals who employ the very best science and psychology western medicine has to offer, they are left with three unlikely diagnoses.
Every doctor that drew my blood
could find no explanation.
Maybe it’s a virus, maybe it’s love,
or just my imagination.
What is it that makes them feel like there is something essential, something abiding that cuts through the existential angst? Maybe it’s a virus, a common-sense materialist answer. After all, if it’s scientifically explainable, they know it’s real. Or maybe it’s their imagination; it might just be something they dreamed up. Perhaps there is a third option. If it isn’t something real in a materialist sense, but it isn’t something merely imaginary, it would have to be some deeper reality. Love?
This is another fantastic statement made by someone who, before this album, we had reason to assume had given up chasing meaning. After reveling in the hedonism of WHITE NOISE and Lover, Gundersen has come back to the last shred of positive philosophy he has. But before wrapping up his thoughts on this potential good, the next three songs, each in turn, comment on the insufficiencies of the default modern approach to life.
‘Magic Trick’ is a unique song, something that stands out against the balance of Gundersen’s discography: a critique of culture. Gundersen has frequently lambasted religion. He has constantly reflected on personal relationship, the good and the bad. But so rarely does he comment negatively on broader culture. In this song, he challenges his audience to keep their eyes on the sleight of hand that social media tries to pull. All you have to do is keep your eyes open, and the pitfalls of what we value today are so obvious. He challenges us to wake up and live better.
‘Blankets’ turns back to personal relationship. The speaker urges a loved one to wake up to the reality of an unhealthy situation, again, a call to pay attention to the reality behind the veil. The veil in ‘Blankets’ is not a virtual reality but is instead an unrealistic hopefulness that positive emotion will overcome ongoing abuse. If there is not so much hope as that, the veil is at least a self-indulgent wallowing in one’s own misfortune. But whatever it is, it is not essential; the speaker calls on his loved one to no longer “soak in the importance of your existential truth.” Reality, he says, is bigger than one’s feelings, even bigger than one’s experiences.
‘Bright Lost Things’ continues this theme. Instead of a current unhealthy situation, the speaker is challenging someone who will not let go of nostalgic feelings. Whoever he is speaking to does not actually want to return to experience the things that have been lost with time; she just wants to remember and relish past emotions, things that have very little bearing on the present.
In these three songs we see how we distract ourselves from real issues in three different ways: the inanity of entertainment, the foolishness of self-pity, or the labyrinth of nostalgia. Each is disturbingly unhealthy in its own way, but all are so obviously common when we reflect on how we live our day-to-day lives.
Gundersen leads us out of this existential morass with the clearest autobiographical detail on A Pillar of Salt. ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ brings us back to Gundersen’s hometown, where he is confronted with much less than a comfortable return to a familiar place. He hates to wander down streets that are haunted by memories of old friends. He does not want to go home to a house and family that will force him to confront his emptiness. He is tempted to irreverently build a church just to give his hands something productive to do, and if the church is burned down immediately after, at least he will have more work to do to rebuild a tired and directionless city. He knows that his contemporaries are finding meaning in a rooted life in real community, as distasteful as that may seem to him. He cannot allow himself to see again how unrooted he has been.
The last two songs on the album are short enough and so packed with meaning that it is worth laying out their full lyrics before diving into each individually.
‘Back to Me’ reads:
Come back to me after the party,
after you’re through with someone else’s body,
after you’re done having your fun
doing your drugs and not enough sleeping.
Come back to me, back to the garden.
Climb up the tree, and sleep in the branches.
When the wind blows, when the ground shakes,
hold on to me, hold on to me, hold on to me…
I cannot hear this song without thinking of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Ent and the Entwife’. I can hear Treebeard calling to Merry and Pip, asking them to find shelter in his boughs. I can hear the Ent and the Entwife pleading with the other to come enjoy the beauty of their beloved lands, too stubborn to return to their greater love. I can hear Peter Jackson’s deep-breathing Treebeard exchange Tolkien’s “Come back to me! Come back to me!” for Gundersen’s “Hold on to me, hold on to me.”
But this, unlike ‘The Ent and the Entwife’, is not a dialogue between two persons of equal claim and equal power. No, ‘Back to Me’ depicts the speaker as one in an unquestioned position of power, in a position of right, with a heart of unrequited love begging the weaker to return to the safety of his garden. This is not a man singing to his beloved, not as far as I can tell. There is a greater distance involved, though no less an intimacy. There is an unbalanced love and an uncertain response.
If the persons involved in ‘Back to Me’ are in doubt, if they do not seem to be the basic pair of lover and beloved, the disparity between what we would expect to hear and what is actually said is magnified on A Pillar of Salt’s last song, ‘Always There’:
You’re cold as ice water falling on my shoulders.
It’s bad advice to rest your head next to strangers.
I think twice and realize I’m only looking at you sideways
with both eyes tired all the time. Who did I expect to find here?
Now the comedown’s heavy, concrete in my shoes.
I was almost ready to climb through.
Love grows like a cancer. You’re always here.
My bones, shaking in terror, will always fear you.
I can think of nothing more remarkable for Gundersen to say at the end of this album, supposing he was to say it honestly. We already know that Gundersen believes that there is an essential and abiding thread of reality running through life, most readily depicted as love. This love is deeper than adolescent infatuation. It is realer than any version of romantic connection. It is far healthier than a capricious, sadistic desire or an indulgent, abusive acquiescence. This love is not only a materialist chemical reaction, nor just a fantastical daydream. This love is the realest real Gundersen can accept.
Though we can say nothing definitive about who the speaker is addressing on ‘Always There’, at least we know some details. Whoever it is, its arrival is as shocking and sobering as ice water. It was always there all along, in the speaker’s waking and sleeping. Though the presence is undeniable, the speaker can never quite get this person in focus. And still, he knows who is there. Who else would it be? The sobering spirit is also grounding; whatever plans of escape the speaker may have hoped for, there is no running now. The love is natural, but invasive. It is internal, personal, dangerous. As familiar as it is, it is terrible; a promise and a threat.
Could Gundersen have written this about a lover? Possible, but fairly unlikely. A dead relative? Maybe. The spirit of an artist, philosopher, school of thought, or historical movement? I guess. But honestly, not one of those are nearly as likely as the simple explanation in front of us.
If ‘Always There’ is not addressing God directly, I just don’t know who else it might be. Nothing else makes much sense. And supposing that the song is written about God, Gundersen has invited his listener to experience one of his most revolutionary and revelatory personal moments along with him, artist and audience together.
Now, I would not be so foolhardy and stupidly optimistic to hope that Gundersen’s next album will be a surprising collection of worship on par with John Van Deusen’s (I Am) Origami Pt. 2. I will not attempt to convince anyone that ‘Always There’ is a profession of faith. But I will contend, until I am contradicted by the artist himself, that this song is as quiet and as nuanced as a tectonic shift can be. Something fundamental has changed in Gundersen’s lyrics, and we do well to listen, if not for his sake, then at least for our own.
What the attentive listener will hear when she revisits Gundersen’s albums is the evolution of one man’s history with, dismissal of, indifference and return to the possibility of God as a personal and loving reality, albeit a terrifying one. Recognizing this development is vital if Christians are not going to concede evangelism to a Van Tillian abandonment of dialogue between the saved and unregenerate. We need to be able to share common terms and common ideas with those who feel perpetually lost, as surely as we share that feeling from time to time. We need to recognize and understand the depths of meaning in words that could easily be dismissed as trivial, unrelated, or offensively irreverent.
Of course, I cannot say whether Gundersen would come to the table to discuss the significance of his lyrical confession. I have no clue whether he would even recognize it as such. But I do know that if I ever had the pleasure of sitting on the barstool next to him, at least now I would have the hope and a shared language to engage in a conversation of eternal gravity. And the weight of Noah Gundersen’s glory is something I would be willing to bear, given the chance.