A simple title though it may be, ‘City Music’, as a phrase, is a succinct summary of the album it represents. The record derives its name from the 7 minute song that forms its literal and metaphorical heart; a fast-beating, vital centrepiece to a richly resonant record that never lacks in impact. The title track is a joyous, uplifting rush of sing-song guitars and exultantly yelped vocals that belies – and complements – moments of gentle melancholy dotted throughout the album. It’s a duality that vividly brings to mind the highs and lows of fast-paced city life and the main theme running throughout Kevin Morby’s excellent fourth solo effort.
It’s easy to read a narrative into ‘City Music’, despite there being no overt thread linking the album’s 12 songs. The album’s duality of opulent, strident drive and pensive sadness lends the record an insinuated storyline, one where Morby, as the narrator, by turns revels in joys of city existence and shrivels in the isolation that such a lifestyle can bring. The six minute ‘Night Time’ is a wonderful exercise in minimalism, weaving a spell of seductive sorrow despite the simplicity of it’s repeating chords and understated fragility. It works as much as a mood piece in the wider context of the album as it does a compelling piece of music in it’s own right, and that’s a trait shared by many of the songs.
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‘City Music’ is not a concept record but it is one where every song has an acute sense of time and place. As a record, it’s largely split into two halves, describing a world where Morby’s outlook changes drastically with the fall of night and the dawn of a new day. The sighing pathos of album opener ‘Come To Me Now’ sets the tone for the nighttime portion of the album – when he sings “ain’t got no family, in a world so cold” and “I can’t wait for the moon to rise, she’s my friend, always been, you can see it in my eyes” he does so with such striking honesty that it hard to disbelieve him.
The sombre soul of ‘Dry Your Eyes’ likewise deals in emotional subtleties, a slow burning reverie of a song that has an impact completely belied by the subdued delivery. It’s in the the late-night musings and hushed reveries of such moments that Morby finds the ying to the yang of the snappy, twanging guitar-rock of the album’s more vivacious songs. If the coming of the moon signals a time of introspective contemplation and softly pervasive melancholy, then the album’s sprightlier moments are imbued with a brightened perspective that is so often linked to the rise of the sun. The addictive ‘Crybaby’ doesn’t shed the dark outlook of it’s predecessors (“I never was someone that I liked” Morby wryly intones at one point) but it does set it to a robust and hugely satisfying backdrop of ringing rhythm guitars and insistent one finger piano – a far cry from the yearning ache of the album’s sleepier moments.
‘1234’ is the album’s punchiest track, a furious sub-two minute belter of squealing lead guitar and stomping rhythms that sees Morby give The Ramones a nod by name as well as by sonics. ‘Aboard My Train’ starts out as a sweet, low-key reminiscence of childhood innocence before the floodgates open and the song explodes into a richly soaring jam-out – surging guitars egged on by Morby’s eager delivery in what passionately vies to be crowned the warmest song on an album full of them. ‘Tin Can’ takes things down a notch or two but retains the keen rhythm guitars in something approximating what Leonard Cohen may have done had he found himself the front-man of a particularly hot indie-rock band. It’s immediately memorable and well rounded – a satisfying half-way house between the out-and-out rock of ‘City Music’s brightest moments and the persuasive contemplation evoked through the album’s slower, more introspective portions.
It’s tempting to call ‘City Music’ an album of two halves. Split, as it is, between an vibrant breed of rock that triangulates indie, garage and punk and a smokey, moon dappled sense of melancholia, Morby’s songs can, at first glance, be largely split into two categories. To do so, however, is to deny Morby the full range of his own creativity; ‘City Music’ is not an album of simple, broadly defined moods and styles but rather one of nuance – with an a intuitive, natural streak that doesn’t fully reveal itself until multiple playthroughs have been reached. There are moments of the completely unexpected, too; Espers alumnus and modern folk genius Meg Baird reading from a Flannery O’Connor passage is a surprising touch and one that can initially appear cryptic in the context of the songs that it sits between. With no musical accompaniment, it’s a moment of thoughtful prose that serves as an intriguing prologue to the album’s title track, a moment of quiet reflection that invites subjective interpretation with open arms.
‘City Music’ has all the impact and focus of an album with a consistent approach and the variety of one with the exact opposite; it’s quite a feat that Morby has pulled off, but it’s a stylishly executed album that exists in it’s own exquisite little universe. A lyrical maturity reached through years of city life and touring lend the album an enviable depth and its eclectic musicality only bolsters its impact. ‘City Music’ is an album that revels in the highs and finds a sombre solace in the lows – and Kevin Morby invites us all along for the ride.
‘City Music’ is out on the 16th June 2017. The full track-listing for the album is as follows…
Come To Me Now
Aboard My Train
Dry Your Eyes
Caught In My Eye