There’s something meditative in Kevin Morby’s craft, something not only introspective but also communal, a reflection of both his own personal world and the subtle experiences of those around him, possibly sharing similarities in their separate, but altogether human perspectives.
In City Music, Morby’s most recent release, the examined commonality that links human experience is the impregnable presence of the city, and a consideration of its fluid existence within our human experience, ranging from distant mythological fantasies to abrasive loneliness experienced from living within its walls. What results is a timeless work that balances constrained nostalgia for 60’s garage rock, modern production intricacies, unconventional harmonic sequences, and a commitment to remaining human, in all its grounded, true, and intimate glory.
What seems to separate City Music from Morby’s previous work is his willingness to experiment, both emotionally and sonically, allowing for a range of complexity in his work that features ominous synth soundscapes coupled with folk sensibilities, playful Nina Simone-esque transitions following the homage to the Ramones fittingly titled “1234.” Uncommon and unpredictable, City Music is a career-elevating work for Morby — who recently turned 29 years old — and a catharsis for his listeners.
One of the most compelling and differentiating aspects of Morby’s work is that he refuses to assume a position, a bias, or any reasonable judgement, as his work neither criticizes, nor celebrates city life, but instead thrives in the romantic intersection of embrace and disillusionment.
Morby’s intimate vocals and disconcerting yet friendly lyrics strongly evoke Lou Reed’s Transformer and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, especially as the vocals float, often into endearing distortion, amongst plucked high-pitched ambient guitar riffs that are comfortably melodic even when embracing and approaching bizarre tonal combinations and harmonies, which in turn effectively symbolize the spontaneity and vicissitudes that city life offers.
This motif of a vacillating restlessness is itself assumed by the track sequence on City Music, as Morby’s hypnotic ballad-esque tunes, such as “Dry Your Eyes,” “Come to Me Now,” and “City Music,” interact successively in a spasmodic and nuanced manner with the upbeat beatnik punch and folky panache of “Crybaby,” “1234,” and “Tin Can,” coercing the listener into a similar paradoxical environment shared by Morby’s lyrical figurations.
Concurrently, the lyrics often conflict with the discernible aural qualities of the work itself, as the frivolous lyricism underlying most upbeat alternative pop tunes is both employed consciously and advantageously (as in “Aboard My Train”) to directly follow a tactic within Bob Dylan’s work used to occasionally suspend his sophistication, and rejected to epitomize a convoluted sense of marginalization. Morby talked specifically about how this comes through in the songs “Aboard My Train” and “Crybaby” in a track-by-track analysis with NPR:
“Aboard My Train” — I wanted to write an uplifting song. All of my songs seem to have such weight — long and daunting if you’re not in the right mood. So I set out to write something that could play out, almost as a children’s song. Like the way Nina Simone or Bob Dylan would have these very simple and innocent songs right in the middle of an album, I wanted to write a song like that. So I wrote an ode to everyone and everything I’ve ever known as a friend — all of them boarding my train and departing at different stations. Some come round again, and some stay only a memory.
“Crybaby” — This song I wrote with drummer Justin Sullivan shortly after moving to L.A., around 2013, after our old band, The Babies, broke up. This song feels like a Babies song, and I always loved it from afar and was eager to use it on a solo record when the time felt right. It’s about existing outside of society and how, on a gloomy day, that can be exhausting — to feel so much — to be so sensitive to such an abrasive world. So why don’t you cry, you crybaby?
While a concrete adoption of any defined genre-specific mores is evidently not a part of Morby’s artistic approach, given that the experimentation within his music makes it rather difficult to pigeonhole his work, he still manages to prevail as a uniquely contemporary musician by balancing his sentimentality with current instrumental tendencies.
The foundational current of Morby’s acoustic guitar, his refreshingly minimalistic instrumentation, and appropriate use of 7th chords amongst a flood of melancholic and anxious lyrics evoke the elegant charms of Cass McComb’s A and M. Ward’s Post-War, while still managing to distance himself by way of the peculiar intricacies interspersed throughout his orchestrations. This characterization is self-implemented, and works seamlessly to strengthen Morby’s creative aesthetic, which is still developing phenomenologically to the greater pleasure of his listeners.
Our favorite songs are “Come to Me Now,” “City Music,” “1234,” “Dry Your Eyes,” and “Downtown’s Lights.”
For more, check out the Kevin Morby Zumic artist page.