- Thomas Gunn, Swimming With Fire
(Ginger Beard House, CD, digital)
In March, singer-songwriter Thomas Gunn co-organized one of Vermont's first livestream music festivals. The Montpelier-based artist quickly responded to the cascade of venue closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic by rallying other local musicians, even some who weren't particularly acquainted with Gunn or his music. His actions helped raise nearly $2,500 for the Vermont Foodbank at a time when the organization needed it desperately.
Two months prior, Gunn released his first album, Swimming With Fire. Since then, the title of his seven-track debut has become bizarrely relevant, even if it wasn't meant to describe what simply existing feels like in 2020. The album's cover image — an illustration of a head engulfed in a swirling mass of flames — is prescient, too, as if Gunn somehow knew what the year had in store.
Gunn shape-shifts throughout the 30-minute album, transforming from old-timey bard ("Ceres") to adult contemporary rocker ("Rain Clouds") to something akin to a modern Broadway star on the title track. As he switches back and forth between piano and acoustic guitar as his lead instrument, he shows mastery over each — particularly the keys. He even steps out of frame completely, allowing poet Toussaint St. Negritude the full spotlight on spoken-word piece "This Room."
Atop field recordings of open nature, Gunn kicks off his record with what sounds like an old traditional, "Ceres." Sung a cappella, the song pays tribute to the noted statue atop the Vermont Statehouse. Gunn ruminates on taking head-clearing walks that end with him gazing up at the Roman goddess of agriculture, singing, "It's good to have a routine when you feel no one else can see you."
As the opener wraps up, a jangly toy piano bridges the gap into the next track, "Lipstick Ghost." The song has a jaunty, madcap flair, like it should be emanating from a low-rent dive during the vaudeville era. It's difficult to say whether Gunn, as a lover scorned, misses his ex or is glad to be rid of them.
"Rain Clouds" and "Virginia" find the artist tapping into '90s rock sounds, particularly "Virginia," which could pass for an Incubus B-side. Though they're Gunn's least compelling tunes, he gives them everything he's got.
The title track, a stately piano ballad, finds Gunn channeling Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. Sweeping and grand, the moving centerpiece showcases the songwriter's lyrical pinnacle as he belts heart-stabbing lines such as, "So I lay my head / On a pillow next to yours / Am I dead / Or are there problems I've ignored? / How can I live my life / When someone else is living it with you?"
Gunn's most successful work happens when he surrenders to the weird, wild and theatrical. As it burns, the world will need more of that energy.
Swimming With Fire is available at thomasgunnmusic.com.