Less than three months ago I wrote a review of Noah Gundersen’s ‘Swim’, the second single from his then-forthcoming album, and in that review I proposed that Gundersen was doing something new in his lyrics. I noted that he was writing from a more contented and hopeful perspective, drastically opposed to the tone and theme of his earlier albums WHITE NOISE and Lover. The review also referenced that newness in Gundersen’s life mirrored that in my own: we had both been married over the past year.
Well, the newness continues. On the since-released album, If This Is The End, Gundersen certainly does continue to write from his new hopeful perspective, giving a positively refreshing update to his discography for his longtime fans. (If after reading this review, you are curious to understand that thematic development, I encourage you to read my review of A Pillar of Salt, which recaps Gundersen’s back catalog.)
There is no particular need for me to dwell too long on the first two songs on the album, having introduced the first and thoroughly reviewed the second in my last review. I would encourage you to read that review now, if you have not already. Though ‘If This Is The End’ is fairly straightforward lyrically, ‘Swim’ is a masterful synthesis and development of the most profound themes in Gundersen’s music. Really, the song is striking and powerful, and I will continue to return to it again and again with satisfaction.
But let us take the time to frame how these two songs fit in with the rest of the album. ‘If This Is The End’ is a curious, an almost ironic name for the first song on an album. It is definitively not the end. Further, you would be fully justified in thinking, before hearing the first song, that an album titled If This Is The End would have little to do with hope for the future; you would be justified, but wrong. This album does reflect on the past and the end of a certain era of Gundersen’s life, perhaps, but it only does so in reference to the future that opens up ahead. The first song asks “God on his throne to leave us alone,” but under the condition “if this is the end.” It is not the end, as the album makes so clear, and as we will see later, there is an explicit invitation for Heaven to intercede in Gundersen’s ongoing existence.
One last thing worth mentioning about the first song is that referencing the end functions as an introduction to esse. On Gundersen’s last album, we saw him wrestle with a philosophical need for something essential, not merely his own existential truth. Existential truth is real, valid, and philosophically necessary (if Kierkegaard has anything to say about it), but it is half of a whole, entirely foundationless without essential truth to ground it (if Descartes has anything to say about it). Our earthly existence will inevitably end; that is essentially true. In the second album in a row, Gundersen is wrestling with the necessity of essence and a reality stark enough to contradict modern subjectivity.
Having already spoken at length on ‘Swim’, I will say no more in this present review, except that what was posited there will be asserted here: it seems fairly clear to me now that Noah Gundersen has aquaphobia, a fear of swimming, a fear of drowning. I would not claim to know that it is some debilitating fear that keeps him out of the water entirely, but it seems to be a deep psychological tension. On an album where he refers to his producer by name (in the first line of ‘Terrible Freedom’), Gundersen reminds his audience of what I’ve claimed before, that we are invited to interpret many of his songs autobiographically. And this album has multiple explicit references to the fear of drowning. Let us keep that in mind as we consider just how open and sincere the lyrics are.
For long-time listeners of Noah Gundersen, a man who has made a career of desperately honest and often despondent lyrics, ‘Swim’ might come across as a little too sappy. So they may be happy to get into a song with a little more grit, like ‘Better Days’. It refers to Noah’s younger, more reckless, and tragic past. We hear about a different lifetime, when Gundersen lived with other 20-somethings, listening to loud music in their bachelor pad, loving too many women, and smoking too many cigarettes. We also hear about one friend lost (by overdose?) and another acquaintace lost by suicide.
But ‘Better Days’, as its title suggests, is a song about hope. Gundersen uses the image of a child panicking as he is trying to learn to swim in the ocean surf as an appropriate description of what it is like to try to keep on living in the face of anxiety, depression, and true personal tragedy. Even so, in spite of that visceral fear, Gundersen tells us “I’m not giving up on better days.” He again rejects the logic of suicide. Hope in the essential goodness of life disallows it. For whatever reason, he believes better days will come and that life is worth the living.
But that does not mean better days will come easy. ‘Moment Like This’ is yet another lament for the state of affairs in our modern, mostly-digital world. And I do not want to make this next point too emphatically, but Gundersen is making a conservative argument (a la Wendell Berry’s conservationist approach, contra consumeristic, self-defining individualism). The singer-songwriter is calling us away from the unanchored tenets of modern, digitally-mediated self-obsession and back to a culture with firm roots in a shared reality. The institutions we used to share (social clubs, societies, churches, volunteer organizations) like “holy empires are falling.” We bowl alone, as Robert Putnam has told us, and living a life devoid of social connection, the modern individual has so much less to share, less to hold onto, less to orient us in a very confusing world. Gundersen issues a clarion call for us to find “one thing to lean on, a star to call north, a lighthouse on the shore” because “there is nothing to hold onto; we’re just blowing in the wind.” He ends the song with a prayer, of sorts: “Just give me one thing.” Like finding a useful corner, he hopes that a single orienting piece might be enough to start solving the puzzle of his life.
Luckily, there is always hope. ‘Everything New’ reminds us that every day is an opportunity to start over, to do better. But this potentiality comes at a cost. As much as If This Is The End is about the future, as I have said, the future does not exist without the past. Gundersen asks us to consider the cost as the flame of our present burns the candle of our life away. However, the many hours the candle has been burning informs how we can burn cleaner and brighter in the future. The future is open possibility, but that means every moment we face an unfamiliar world. The world is changing. We change with it. We might even change it ourselves. Will we be brave enough to direct that change and to act differently?
Someone less optimistic will ask, do people ever really change? Doesn’t our past define the person who we so clearly are? ‘Painted Blue’ hopes to address such questions. It is one of the most powerful songs on the album, and at the halfway point, acts as an excellent fulcrum on which the album’s primary theme receives its power and potential.
There is a certain breed of determinist (whether she considers herself such or not) who feels she is beholden to forces outside of her own will so much so that she believes she is only very partially responsible for the outcome of her own life. Now, to be clear, whether you prefer to think of fate, predestination, systemic racism, or life expectancy by zip code/income bracket, there are many forces outside of our personal control that affect our lives in fundamental ways. This is not what I’m talking about.
However, when words said or thought about you, when past actions done by or to you serve as an excuse or justification for why you are or are not bound to be a certain person (an excuse to not even aspire to change for the good), we are no longer talking about the same thing. When one believes that her past forecloses all hope for the future, something demonic is at work.
‘Painted Blue’ begins with this type of move; having read his horoscope and foreseeing doom, Gundersen succumbs to his dread and acts out the watery death he fears. He momentarily gives into the despair of his past, but turns quickly and tries to do what he can to burn away what seems to be holding him back. Looking to the blue haze of the past, what might be considered the wasted prime of his life, Gundersen knows that those things will always be a part of who he is now, who he might be in the future.
But in referring to the biblical account of Israel’s desert wanderings, Gundersen is encouraging his audience to remember the divine potential for redemption:
I wandered the desert, despite my efforts Wound up like Moses at the gates So light a fire, and burn away All the efforts of my glory days
The only biblical reference of “Moses” and “gates” comes from Exodus 32:26: “Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the Lord's side? Come to me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him.” This verse occurs after Moses returns from communing with YHWH on Mount Sinai. His brother Aaron and all of Israel, whom God had just saved from slavery in Egypt, while YHWH’s presence was thundering on the mountain in front of them, had constructed a golden calf to worship instead of YHWH. This idolatry in the face of God is difficult to fathom. Moses responds firmly, burning away the calf, and reducing it to dust before sending the Levites through the camp to slaughter those at fault.
Regardless of its sin, Gundersen knows that Israel is defined less by what it did and far more by the divine promises that God made to the nation. Gundersen longs to see the same brilliance of God’s presence that Moses encountered:
I wanted desperately something I couldn’t see A blinding light, always just out of reach The ancient specter, the blind director The sirens on the beach … So heaven help me if I stay Heaven help me if I go away I’ve forgotten how to pray But heaven help me anyway
Unfortunately, Gundersen did not make a stop in Pittsburgh for me to see him tour this album, but one of my readers let me know that before playing this song in Durham, NC, Noah said that ‘Painted Blue’ was about self acceptance, that someone in the audience was crying while Gundersen played, that the whole experience was very powerful. I would not contradict the artist’s description of his own work, but as I have made clear above, this song takes a step beyond self-acceptance. In large part, what it is dealing with is the possibility for divine acceptance and true redemption, hoping that the providence of the “blind director” might include heaven helping a wayward sinner.
Acting as a step between self-acceptance and acceptance from that divine other, ‘Haunted House’ reminds us yet again that Gundersen is still wondering at the acceptance that he has found in his wife. In the midst of the dark, cobwebbed mess that he had made of his life, his wife stands out like a sparkling diamond. She offered him a light in his darkness, and he is surprised to find, like the recurring action of a spinning wheel, that she accepts him again and again and again. He does not believe he has much to give in return for this undeserved love:
You fell in love with a dying star A failing liver and a broken heart But if you can love me for all that I'm not I'll give you the rest of what I've got
Though he cannot see himself as anything more but a fading light, she sees much more. Though he believes she loves him in spite of what he lacks, she instead loves him for who he is. And fortunately he is willing to empty himself in return, giving her what little he might have. The reciprocity at work here is encouraging.
The spiritual and personal redemption that was sought on ‘Painted Blue’ and the relational redemption found on ‘Haunted House’ is made a bit more explicit with the next track. ‘Headlights’ opens with a verse that bears the weight of what love looks like in community:
I woke up from a dream With a sinking feeling That it all had just been a dream I stood high on the mountain Overlooking the valley My friends and my family were there And nobody cared about all that was broken That could not be repaired
But this is not a dream. Gundersen has found in his marriage, in the constant support of his family and close friends, that they love him unconditionally. They do not love him for the person he should have been. They do not love him for who he still may become. They love him. They love him regardless of what is broken and will remain broken. They love him for the past that will always be a part of who he is. In a sense, they love him in spite of him.
The past mistakes, even the mistaken priority of living as a rock star (an interesting thing to hear disavowed on a newly released album), have not negated the possibility for Gundersen to eventually find what was in front of him all along. On the road of life, driving desperately to find his destination, the singer had been unable to see that it was his fellow travelers who should have been his real priority. And when he finally does realize it, he finds they are as willing to accept and love him as they always have been. Again, all of this in spite of him.
When the honest penitent sees the future of hope and love that is still accessible to him after years of sin, error, and harm should have foreclosed such a possibility, he might be apt to realize how limited his own power truly is. Yes, his own will made such a mess of his life. Yes, he willed a return to the loving embrace of those who would still accept him. But that is an insufficient explanation for the unimaginable blessedness before him. From that humble realization, we hear the road-weary traveler admit, “All my life, I thought I was driving, but, these days, I don’t know.” This line is just one more lyrical shockwave from Gundersen’s last couple of albums.
Carry the Ghost, WHITE NOISE, and Lover (three previous albums) were chock full of indications of the license that attends a self-sufficient, self-referential individualism. These albums graphically depict the implications and consequences of such a philosophy. We were made to believe that Gundersen had totally given himself over to a libertarian hedonism, from which he may never turn. But in this last line, we see the singer recognize the limits of his own will. He is blessed by the fact and realization that the goodness and possibility of his future do not depend on the straight-line cause and effect of his own past, which would have only led to pitiably isolated destitution.
‘The Future’ reiterates the reality that the past does not eliminate and should not blind us to the hope we can have for the days ahead. ‘Terrible Freedom’ more explicitly makes the case against the hedonistic individualism so prized by our modern world (contra the freedom proposed in ‘NEW RELIGION’ on WHITE NOISE). Gundersen has drastically reversed course between ‘NEW RELIGION’ and ‘Terrible Freedom’. His audience does his unrelenting sincerity discredit to pass over this fact. By truly hearing the change in perspective expressed so clearly in these lyrics, we can begin to understand the profundity of Gundersen’s development, of (if I may be so bold) his maturation.
By the time he wrote If This Is The End, Gundersen had realized that “the price of this terrible freedom we thought was in such high demand” is tragically personified in the person of Elvis Presley. Elvis never relented from such terrible freedom, up until he was “shrouded in shadow, lonely, and morbidly fat.” Gundersen gave up the decadence of sex, drugs, and rock & roll before he came to that end, but he faces an end nonetheless: an end of that lifestyle. Talking to himself at that end, he looks forward:
You had a real good run You had a lot of fun And whatever you become Now that it’s over That’s up to you
Even for someone who has always been so honest in his lyricism, I imagine it is horribly difficult to be so honest with oneself and own up to one’s past. Still, doing that for oneself is one thing. We might find the strength to forgive ourselves, but it would feel like presumptive imposition to expect anyone else to do the same. How can we invite someone else into the mess we’ve made?
On ‘Love Is Blind’, Gundersen reminds us that is exactly what we have to do in genuine relationship. With family and close friends, we might expect a small dose of acceptance and forgiveness, enough to peacefully share a meal once a month or so. But in marriage, the depth of the grace that must be extended is something else entirely.
The final song on the album marvels in that kind of unconditional love. Noah wrestles with the relational responsibility of marriage as he continues to mess up, continues to hurt his wife, and continues to hope for better for them both. And the final song once more shows Gundersen arguing from a surprisingly traditional point of view. In a decadent western society that has devalued the sanctity of marriage and has normalized no-fault divorce, it can strike our ears as almost abusive when we hear the final chorus:
Someone told me once That love is blind But, honey, I think you can see just fine Despitе the warning signs, you stuck around And there ain’t no going back now
Saying there is no escape with the selfish individualism of WHITE NOISE and Lover, perhaps we might think of these words as more of a threat than a promise: a threat that his wife must continue to suffer his abuse. But coming at the tail end of A Pillar of Salt and If This Is The End, what we should hear instead is covenant. The sanctity of the traditional marriage vows echo that of a much older promise. Some of the most meaningful words in all of Jewish and Christian scripture come just two chapters after the earlier Exodus reference. Here YHWH reveals his character to Moses in self-description. God shows us the prerequisite for keeping covenant with a sinner. In order for the promise to last, we must be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
Gundersen tells us he has found a woman who is pursuing this character in her relationship with him. God bless. May he pursue the same. May he seek and find goodness from the source.
Wherever he is on that path, it seems that Noah Gundersen has at least taken steps toward an openness to the spiritual blessings that he grew up with in his very religious family. A fan who saw Noah in D.C., the night after his show in Durham, summed up her enjoyment of the show in words that I would not try to improve as a description of the positive direction his lyrics have taken over the past few years:
He's still himself in concert - meaning a bit crass but sincere - but certainly seemed less bitter than when I last saw him.
Paul Frank Spencer is the owner of By Grace For Glory Publishing and author of Marvelous Light. He earned a BA and BSBA from the University of Pittsburgh and still lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Keep up with Spencer's reviews and creative writing at www.bgfg77.com.