“All my favorite literature and poetry is observational, not personal. I think that’s kind of a selfish endeavor,” singer/songwriter and guitar virtuoso Steve Gunn told Wondering Sound back in 2014. On new album Eyes on the Lines (out now via Matador), Gunn stays true to the aforementioned quote with a beautiful collection of nine tracks filled with scenes that take place in a rustic setting half the world away from Brooklyn, where he calls home.
“I don’t necessarily want to present myself as a character,” Gunn explains moments before a recent show in Kriens, Switzerland. “I like to tell a story and be a bit more vague and present ideas and imagery with words instead of presenting myself as a character.”
It’s not just talk—Gunn makes a conscious effort not to write about himself even though he’s the one singing. On Eyes on the Lines, he uses an unspecified “you” 62 times but only “I” or “I’m” 11 times and “me” three times. When he does sparingly use first person, it’s never definite; all uses of “I” appear in phrases like “I think,” “I feel,” or “I’m hoping.”
“I like to live in either a different character’s perspective or as someone distant, more on the outside looking in,” he says. “I make a conscious effort of trying to avoid an overly personal way of presenting lyrics.”
So where is Steve Gunn in these lyrics?
“David Bowie sort of used this trick as well in interviews—I like to leave that open,” he answers in a convoluted way. “It’s not necessarily me. It is me, obviously, but it’s not about me. It isn’t me sitting on the highway stuck in traffic. It is, but it’s more than that. It’s more about the idea and the feeling that you’re experiencing and it could relate to different experiences, not just one instance in my life. It’s me speaking it, but I don’t necessarily want people to interpret it as me.”
Even writing lyrics is a relatively new development for Gunn, as much of his early work is strictly instrumental. Hailing from Philadelphia and later moving to Brooklyn, he used to sing in the car with his family as they listened to music all of the time. But once he started playing guitar at a young age, he stopped, only ever singing in private. It was only until much later that he discovered his love for singing and playing together on top of his increasingly complex acoustic and electric guitar lines.
It’s fascinating to listen to Gunn’s vocal development over time; you can hear his singing voice gain confidence with each subsequent release. On 2008’s Sundowner, his voice rarely grows louder than a whisper. Throughout album cut “Money Train Blues,” his singing is shaky and apprehensive, not too far off of Pink Moon-era Nick Drake—you can literally hear Gunn’s nerves on top of his melancholy acoustic guitar fingerpicking.
At that point, those nerves multiplied tenfold once Gunn stepped onto the stage. “Oh yeah, it was really frightening for me,” he remembers. “You kind of have to let yourself go at a certain level and I didn’t really know how to do that. I never had any public speaking or singing experience, so that was something that I really had to work on and get the confidence to do. It took a long time and it was difficult at first.”
Fast-forwarding to 2016, Gunn isn’t belting or screaming by any means, but there is a definite difference between Sundowner and Eyes on the Lines. “It’s weird because the singing calms me now—it’s like a way for me to relax,” he explains. “I think it started to switch when I started playing with a band because I had to project my voice more. Fronting drums, bass, and another guitar player is like, ‘alright, you need to do it or you’re fucked.’ For me, that was kind of when I was like, ‘damn, I need to stand up straight, sing louder, and not be such a wimp.’”
He may have grown more confident behind the microphone, but his guitar playing is as good as it ever has been. His skill is undeniable—Gunn is without a doubt one of the best guitarists of his generation. Eyes on the Lines features guitar lines that simultaneously fuse the likes of Jerry Garcia, Nels Cline of Wilco, and Kurt Vile. Gunn actually joined Vile’s live band on his 2013 tour supporting Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. Speaking about Gunn prior to those dates, Vile exclaimed, “It’s impossible to just talk about Steve. He’s too good! He’s so good; just listen to him. What can I even say about him that touches that? I just want to listen to him.” High praise, but praise that is wholly justified.
Because of the beautiful guitar playing, it’s incredibly easy to zone out over the course of a Steve Gunn record—it’s almost too pretty not to. But, as is the case with each of his releases, repeated listens and an attention to detail shows how absurdly talented he is, not just as a guitar virtuoso, but as a lyricist as well. Each of Eyes on the Lines’ nine songs border on poetry, transporting the listener out of the city, at least for the 41 minutes or so of the record’s running time.
In many circles, Steve Gunn is known as one of the best guitarists of his generation and his new record Eyes on the Lines further cements that as fact. But it’s time to appreciate Gunn as not simply an amazing instrumentalist, but as a supremely talented poet and lyricist as well.