Kevin Morby’s new album, ‘Sundowner’ was inspired by a period of isolation. No, wait, not that one. This album emerged from a self-imposed recalibration in the winter of 2017, where he moved away from his Los Angeles base – and the community that inspired his 2016 opus ‘Singing Saw’ – and to his Kansas City home.
In these familiar surroundings, he began writing and recording music to a four-track cassette, the type of recording equipment integral to Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 masterpiece ‘Nebraska’ and Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘On Avery Island’. The analogue machine captured Morby’s songwriting at a turbulent time; friends and collaborators Jessi Zazu, Richard Swift both passed, while travel journalist and chef Anthony Bourdain – a figure he admired, whom many have adopted as their own – died by suicide.
These aforementioned names, among others, find their way onto Morby’s intimate new collection. Much like the aforementioned Springsteen album – which was penned at the same time as ‘Born In The USA’ – this is one stripped of the rock bombast heard on previous albums ‘City Music’ and ‘Oh My God’.
Back under Midwestern skies, his songwriting is melancholic and warm – he’s both thankful for the change of scenery and for the new romance in his life with Katie Crutchfield (aka folk hero Waxahatchee) while navigating a challenge many face when returning home; reconnecting with surroundings once ‘abandoned’.
On opener ‘Valleys’, Morby speaks of the people dwelling beneath him, who pretend “not to know me”, but later on ‘Sundowner’ – a reference to what he’s called he and Kate’s “mutual melancholy” at sundown every night – the musician is content with fewer, but stronger bonds. Not since ‘City Music’s ‘On My Train’ has he examined the ties that bind with such clarity. “There’s a fire inside you, and that’s why you billow” he remarks on highlight ‘Campfire’, a duet with Crutchfield, their two halves of the song are separated by the crackling sound of a glowing fire – their warmth to each other emanates as the sun bids farewell.
In an accompanying text for the record, Morby says that the process of writing songs on his albums, much like the sunsets, “are fleeting” and that only a desire to capture them – on, say, a four-track recorder – allows them to truly exist. Too often on ‘Sundowner’, these songs slip out of view and through his fingers. ‘Brother, Sister’ trundles along with little purpose, while the instrumental ‘Velvet Highway’ packs piano flourishes, but without the depths reached on fellow album cut ‘Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun’ and ‘A Night At The Little Los Angeles’.
Given the somewhat disjointed making of this record – a journey that stretches from 2017 to mid-lockdown – it lacks the cohesiveness of recent material. The songs origins, however, have come from a completely different place for Morby, one more instinctive and reflective, as he jots down snapshots and musings eloquently into a handy piece of kit. Given that it kickstarted a new exploration in his songwriting, the resulting project is still worth savouring.
Release date: October 16
Record label: Dead Oceans