Kevin Morby - City Music
Saturday night and you’re four beers deep as you cloister yourself in your tiny bedroom in unremarkabletown#3, StateInDeepFinancialDecline46. “Blush” by Mr. Twin Sister is playing. After the seventh beer you won’t hear the music anymore, but you also won’t remember this in the morning. From your vantage point, a tiny window that spills through bushes into the wall of the home next door, you stare until the siding climbs into skyscrapers. The imaginary camera filming your pathetic life zooms out, out, out to reveal your home as one of dozens, hundreds maybe, of tiny domiciles littering the countryside, illuminated by the desires of those seeking themselves in the distant glare of the city skyline.
City Music, the fourth solo album by former Woods bassist Kevin Morby, dynamically captures the idealism and inevitable disappointment associated with “squinting at this godawful town” on album opener “Come to Me Now”. Utilizing a variety of song styles and vocal approaches, most often channeling a soft-spoken and slurred Lou Reed, there’s plenty to chew over whether you’ve started writing your own city story or are still eagerly plotting your disappearance into the sea of police sirens, concrete, and absurd zoning laws. You mean this restaurant only has five tables? You mean this restaurant isn’t a Steak ‘n Shake?
New locales bring new attitudes, or at least the kind of cool aloofness that might leave you uttering opaque phrases about how people behave “in the city”. On the punky, brutish “1234” it’s a devotion to the long departed Ramones and their New Yawk is the world mentality, juxtaposed against the possibility of feeling “alone on a crowded street” on the jangly, sneering “Crybaby”. Much of City Music, like standout track “Aboard My Train”, oscillates between junctures of a life. Mooning over the reality that some friends, lovers, acquaintances will remain temporary as the erstwhile train of life plunges forwards, it’s a bittersweet sentiment all too familiar to anyone who has gone back to their hometown for a weekend visit only to realize there’s never enough time to really catch up.
For an album that so often postures as tough, relying on Morby’s sharp, laconic vocals, it is also one littered with tears. “Dry Your Eyes” benefits from emotionally plaintive Television style “guitarmonies”, as Morby deemed the work of guitarist Meg Duffy in a June 16, 2017 interview with NPR. “No crowd to be a part of”, he reflects, again hitting that toxic concoction of freedom and isolation so often synonymous with the first big move. Then “City Music” crashes in like a burst of creative freedom, guitar and drums interlocking with the rush of a thriving, bustling, noxious, downtown. You could wander around for hours and not make eye contact with anyone, an endless shell of a new home to explore. But that barely furnished apartment is still waiting for you when you get back and the track falls gently in line just before it closes as if to remind you to set your alarm clock for work on Monday.
If there’s a weak spot in City Music it’s that slight stylistic shifts occasionally make for genre-pastiche or only tangentially support the theme. “Tin Can”, with its yawpy vocals, grates for the first half until it reaches cathartic musical release and offers one of the weakest choruses on the album. Ditto “Night Time”, where Morby’s voice sinks, wooden, across five minutes of light piano and general thrum that never accumulates. The back half of this album develops a loping, twangy patter that engages the light experimentalism of alt-country without fully pushing or prodding it in terms of its relationship to Morby’s urban scenescape. Like the constant smell of weed that engulfs the city, the faceless neighbors down the hall who constantly spark up, or the realization that neighbor is actually you, it’s all more likely to annoy than inspire.
Posturing aside, Morby captures the multi-faceted experience of city life with a left-field Flannery O’Connor excerpt dropped in the middle of the album like a literal dividing line between the city and everything that isn’t. Taken from her 1960 novel The Violent Bear It Away, the scene hinges on a conversation between a runaway teenage boy and a salesman as they approach a large city. “That’s the same fire we came from”, the boy intones, sure of himself. “Boy, you must be kidding me”, the salesman replies, “that’s the glow from the city lights”. Like the cover of City Music, which depicts a fractured version of Morby splayed across a mirror, we are caught within versions of ourselves. The allure of the city is something bred into small town denizens from birth, a possibility of transformation, change, and escape. But how else would you expect a salesman to pitch it? To quote Thomas Wolfe, an author Flannery O’Connor hated, “you can’t go home again”.