Review: Noah Gundersen’s ‘White Noise’ lacks poetry, depth of previous work

Posted on Oct 2 2017 - 8:00am by Jonathan Gibson

If you’re a die-hard Noah Gundersen fan, hold on tight. His newest album will probably disappoint you.

Gundersen, an eclectic indie folk singer from Seattle, released his third full-length album entitled “White Noise” last week, and it’s an hourlong emotional rollercoaster that will leave you feeling uneasy, hyped and emotionally empty, all at the same time.

Photo Courtesy: Noah Gundersen Music

This album diverges from everything you know about Gundersen, straying from his usual gritty, acoustic, folksy sound and wandering into ethereal, electronic, synth and beat-heavy melodies instead.

This change may be welcome to some, but if you’re a purist, Gundersen has undergone a huge change that you might not be OK with. Some reviewers have called this his greatest work yet, but when put up against songs like “First Defeat” and “Times Move Quickly” from his first full-length album, “Ledges,” this new work can’t hold a candle.

The album opens with an extended electric guitar riff — already a jarring moment for anyone familiar with Gundersen’s style. His subtle vocals, combined with the steady pulse of drums and slow picking of the electric guitar are reminiscent of early Coldplay or Death Cab for Cutie songs. You’ll see traces of both artists littered throughout “White Noise.”

“After All (Everything All the Time)” is an unengaging opening song for the album, especially compared to the soulful vocals in “Poor Man’s Son” or the passionate piano moments in “Slow Dancer,” opening songs on his first and second full-length albums, respectively. “After All” simply lacks the lyrical intensity and energy needed to draw you in, and this is a critical mistake for any artist to make.

This mistake becomes even clearer as soon as the second song, “The Sound,” begins. This is the song the album should have started with. A slow, subtle intro, it has what the opening song lacks: forward motion and a passion that makes you want to dance and soul-search. This momentum will inevitably carry you through the rest of the album.

Although off to a rocky start, “White Noise” picks up steadily as it goes, hitting only a few bumps along the way. If you can make it past them, you might wind up loving the album, though you’ll probably end up hitting the skip button a few times on your next play through.

Throughout the album, there is a theme of holding your breath, anxious for some long-awaited moment or event. Mixed in with this is the struggle against feeling like you’re drowning in the midst of life and everything it throws your way. Gundersen repeatedly weaves this imagery into his lyrics, making this album a dark insight into not only his struggles to stay afloat in life but also his intense desire to find something his heart is searching for.

“Number One Hit of the Summer (Fade Out)” is forgettable, but “Cocaine, Sex & Alcohol (From a Basement in Los Angeles)” will leave you slowly nodding along to its eerie melodies, stirring strings and haunting falsetto harmonies that bring to mind songs from Hozier and The Head and the Heart.

“Bad Actors” tastefully examines humanity’s darkest side through the lens of the pornographic industry, and it leaves the listener feeling uneasy. Perhaps it accomplishes its goal, but ultimately, the song lacks any real substance that would indicate a deeper meaning or lesson.

It takes seven songs to finally get to something that sounds close to the classic Gundersen style, but “Fear & Loathing” more than makes up for the dragging middle section of the album. This song honestly makes the album worth getting. His vocals soar above gentle piano and pulsing acoustic guitar strumming, and he shows his prowess and raw ability to fill a large space with a small sound. It’s a little more than six minutes long, but you won’t want it to end, especially since its follow-up song, “Sweet Talker,” completely changes the tone of the album.

“New Religion” through the end of the album will mess you up emotionally. The final half cuts deep, with long sections of sustained organ chords, powerful riffs and haunting vocals that drag you through the emotional pain and struggle Gundersen is experiencing.

“Wake Me Up, I’m Drowning” pulls you down like you’re underwater. The vocals rise and fall, strings fade in and out and you can hear the melodies pulsing and reverberating until you feel like you actually can’t breathe. You’ll sit in silence, trying to recover from this overwhelming rush of emotion as the album fades into the aptly named “Dry Year.”

The album may have had a disappointing opening, but there’s no doubt the finale was specifically written to end a concert with people feeling hyped and ready to take on the world after drying their tears. “Send the Rain (to Everyone)” is the upbeat anthem song you’ve been waiting for, taking advantage of every skill Gundersen has, from his lyrical expertise to his gritty vocals.

This album is difficult to score. For the die-hard Gundersen fan, it’s not what you would expect — and honestly not what I was looking for from him. That doesn’t discount the accomplishment of the album, though. It’s experimental, ethereal and weird. Really weird. It ventures into the explicit, it takes you on a journey through pain and heartache and it offers a glimpse into some dark parts of Gundersen’s life.

But the songs lack the grit and soul seen in his previous work, and his lyrics are missing the depth they used to have. It feels like Gundersen went from writing poetry that followed his own rules to just pandering to modern conventions of indie folk, easy-to-digest lyricism.

I would highly recommend this album to anyone who can jam to Death Cab for Cutie, post-2009 Coldplay and 2015 Mumford and Sons. Like those artists, Noah Gundersen has completely changed his style in a way that will shock fans but that will open him up to a broader audience of newcomers.

“White Noise” lost the luster and heart of his early work, but it shows a maturity and ability to adapt to changing times that some artists miss out on, so this album will keep him relevant for years to come — even though I feel he has sold out to what the people want.