Listening to Steve Gunn feels a little like playing with a Rubik’s Cube: It appears simple at first, just a six-sided, colored cube with a straightforward resolution. But as you fiddle with it more and more, the complexity reveals itself, millions of iterations intricately linked to somehow pull you both closer and further away from any discernible outcome. Both physically and musically, Gunn initially seems like any other singer-songwriter type you’ve seen on any pub stage. Gentle and dreamy, an airy voice guiding you through pretty but predictable chord changes, satisfied to reside in that space. But for Gunn this image merely forms a sketch of what he does with Other You. A sketch that is then rendered and colored in, constantly revisited to create a highly detailed portrait through its myriad subtle touches.
To this end, Other You in many ways is the definition of an album that rewards repeated listens. There’s an ambience to it, soft and feathered in its production, that makes it immediately pleasing. But as with any good ambient music, its mysteries are revealed with closer attention. This is made clear early. Second track “Fulton” eases into timeless melody, layered meandering piano and swept drums almost taking on swing sensibilities. But flourishes of overdriven lead guitar and growing urgency in Gunn’s voice offset any sense of straightforward songwriting, reinforced by the almost indiscernible crescendo of the piano and seamless introduction of clean, almost jazzy, guitar lines. It’s a tight example of the delicate way these songs are layered, the instrumentation melded to give the impression of a classic FM easy listening—humming away as you cruise down the interstate. But as with any of the eras those songs were birthed from—influences Gunn is clearly in love with—there are great musicians at the heart of them.
Gunn is a hell of a guitarist and a hell of a songwriter. But on Other You, he never takes these qualities to their extremes. He shreds, but never in a way that’s in your face, more as gentle accompaniment to the interwoven instrumentation as on “Good Wind” or with bluesy restraint on melodic highlight “Circuit Rider.” The closest he gets to a bona fide face melter is the echoed theatrics that cleave “On the Way” in two, but even then it’s brief and distant. The softly driven beat and stabbing dance of the guitar that intersperses “Protection” offers a weird, off-kilter interpretation of what otherwise would fairly standard heartland rock ‘n roll, while those speakeasy influences return to roll through gorgeous track “The Painter.” His writing is bright and self-affirming, even as he expresses longing and melancholy, as though assured in who he is through a process of healing. Embracing change. It makes sense; the album was recorded in two visits to L.A., the distant environs to Gunn’s home in Brooklyn offering respite as well as inspiration for new ideas and challenges.
It’s a sense that’s strikingly apparent on the final two tracks. Delicate and pretty, they encompass the gentle nature of the record through the restraint of virtuosity. Mary Lattimore lends her harp to “Sugar Kiss,” the only instrumental song on the record, as sunny electronics and the layered harp lines softly build into a tangled web of haunting soundscapes, complex and beautiful. While “Ever Feel that Way” closes the journey out with its soft acoustics and hazy, almost jazzy ramblings. It’s lovely and inoffensive, but deep enough to slowly fall into. An immersion of perfectly warm water to lie one’s head back and just be part of for awhile, immune to the deficiencies of external reality. A microcosm of Other You more broadly. Like turning the Rubik’s Cube, lost in the process without ever really feeling the need to solve it.
Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Will has been contributing to Treble since 2018. Music and writing are the foils to his day job. Apart from Treble, he has contributed to Drowned in Sound, Glide Magazine and Indieshuffle. He also plays music and blogs when time permits.