Kevin Morby’s lexicon doesn’t include towering skyscrapers or the sickening miasma of the nine train in the flickering hours of morning. His world is that of the agrarian smoke stacks, places where after dark means after dark, where not being able to see your hand held up to your face is a virtue. Previously, he spun yarns about mountains, played in a band called Woods, and he positioned himself as the archetypical Americana wanderer. These were the threadbare rags of Dylan and Cohen that he wore, with a mythical button to top it all off. His latest effort, City Music, finds him burrowing deep into the crevice of big city malaise. The result is a collection of fractured serenity.
Undeterred by his shift from rural to metropolitan, Morby’s southern gothic unconscious still serves as the sun to his stars. This is no more pronounced than exactly halfway through the record, where an excerpt from Flannery O’Connor’s sacred novel The Violent Bear It Away arises from the smoke. “Look,” Tarwater said suddenly, sitting forward, his face close to the windshield, “we’re headed in the wrong direction. We’re going back where we came from. There’s the fire again. There’s the fire we left’.” In this overt experiment to measure the distance between his past and his future, Morby positions himself as the young boy. Face close to his own windshield, he watches as the lights of his cities past and his city future amalgamate.
This shared commonality is central to the heart of City Music. He drifts into town on standout track “Dry Your Eyes,” hoping to find some opulent adventure. These moments of wayfaring beauty are assuredly given even more power when placed in context with the rest of Morby’s work. Last year found the Texas native break out with Singing Saw, a sumptuous work that introduced his evocative voice to the world. As a follow-up, City Music doesn’t let any air out of the balloon. By refusing to stray too far from what makes him unique, he shifts his focus enough to give the listener an invigorating experience.
Morby’s exploratory descent is marked by the forlorn ennui one would come to expect from any great New York city apologue. The press release for City Music lists Patti Smith and Lou Reed as guiding lights for the record, and while musically Morby still incorporates tried and true Americana—the yearning acoustic guitar, the droning organ—the structure of these songs is where they start to break from tradition. Whereas his previous work jaunted forward with an underpinning of almost jangle pop, City Music drifts in and out, never in a hurry to reach its destination. This is a small adjustment, but one that allows for the songwriter’s lyrics and mystical voice to do more of the work.
Like the summation of his oeuvre, City Music possesses the listless, nearly ancillary atmosphere of a novella. This is not any ostentatious statement or reinvention of the wheel, and by and large that is a wonderful revelation. Whether it be on heart-wrenching finale “Downtown’s Lights” or stark, languorous “Come to Me Now,” there is always Morby’s comforting sensibility and he remains neither blinded by or overwhelmed by the fire-like city lights he discovers here.