ALBUM REVIEW: Kevin Morby – ‘Sundowner’: simple acoustic truths deliver great profundity

SUNDOWNER, Kevin Morby’s new record, is an album that arose from the making of an entirely other record; it’s also an album of sea changes in life, of a new romance, of a moment in the day.

Kevin was actually finishing up his rather lovely most recent album, last year’s Oh My God, after a precipitous move back home to Kansas City, out in the centre, the so-called fly-over states, after many years in LA; 1500 miles, a couple of timezones. A relocation and at first, a dislocation.

Sat in a new house pretty much devoid of furnishings and the familiar, he bought a Tascam four-track so he could at least work up some ideas to polish up the latest set, overdubs and the like; actually what happened is he began to lay down an entirely new set of tunes, stripped back and straight to tape.

The new collection of songs came quickly and effortlessly as I did my best not to resist or refine the songs, but instead let them take shape all on their own,” Kevin says of the new album’s unexpected arrival.

“ I was mesmerized by the magic of the four-track not only as a recording device, but also an instrument, and considered it my songwriting partner throughout the whole process.” 

He cleared out his shed, worked all day until sundown, which partly informs the title: more of that later. “I’d emerge … as the sun was getting low,” he says; “around 5.30pm in the winter, when the Kansan sunsets look icy and distant, like a pink ember inside a display case, and 9 o’clock in the summer, when the sunsets are warm and abstract.”

And all this was going on while he came face to face with himself in that way only those who have suddenly arrived where they grew up for an extended period with no out date, rather than for a fun and nostalgic visit, can know: the new self, the past self, all the correspondences between the two; and all the fractures. Losses, faces familiar, faces gone. “I saw images of friends and landmarks morph in and out of one another before disappearing altogether, leaving me to wonder where everyone, and everything, eventually ends up,” he said. 

And that loss can be heard so strongly on the single Kevin dropped back at the end of August, “Campfire”, a complex elegy that features as the fourth track on Sundowner

Dust is kicking up off his engineers’ boots in this song, with a little harking back maybe to the mission of The Band at the Big Pink; “there’s a campfire inside my soul,” he sings, a man wondering and questing. “And where have all my friends gone / And where did all my friends go?”

And three of his friends and mentors get a namecheck in the song: “Jessi did her time, now she’s laid to rest with a campfire inside his soul,” this last line breaking Dylanesque right across the middle of “campfire”. Elsewhere he laments that “Anthony’s dead, and poor Richard too.”

He explains: “Over the span of one year, the world saw the passing of Jessi Zazu, Richard Swift and Anthony Bourdain. I also mourned the ten-year death anniversary of a best friend and forever muse, Jamie Ewing. 

“I had first seen Jessi perform in a bar when she was 17, singing with her band Those Darlins. Hovering around five feet tall, her stage presence was larger than life, an icon ahead of her time. 

“Richard Swift was a genius producer, musician and friend, who helped me complete my album City Music and whose laugh I will forever miss. 

Anthony Bourdain, perhaps the last honorable spokesmen for America, left when we needed his voice most.”

We’ve embedded the video just below here; see Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, ready to pick Kevin up as the song shifts into its second phase, coming on like the disincarnate female shade in “Johnny Remember Me”, crossed with the river spirits of Alison Krauss et al in O Brother, Where Art Thou?; his lost friend still a voice on a tune that’s sad, yes; but which has an easy and subtle chiming charm and uplift. You can see the chemistry between them crackle over the back of that Ford.

Jamie, his friend ten years gone, gets his own elegy, a simpler and starker acoustic tune named for him. It has that unblinking clarity that comes in grief and loss and that particular state of grace: “He’d hate me, but I get angry, and I wish my friend was still alive / Oh Lord, well I wish my friend was still alive,” Kevin sings, that guitar crisply strummed; there’s the subtlest organ tone out back, and no more is necessary.

“If I had learned anything in the decade that Jamie had been gone from this earth, it’s that the fire of one’s life continues to billow long after it goes out,” says Kevin in tribute.

It’s not just an album of loss, however, although lyrically it tends to introversion. Opener “Valley” is a Dylanesque three-chord gem of protest and alienation at the earthbound who don’t know him “in the valley below me”, lent potency with its upfront production, placing Kevin right there with you, a simple shimmer of a guitar break lifting the tune. It’s just classically great songwriting, and I bet it looks easy; but it sure as hell ain’t.

“Brother, Sister” is a twilit tune of some allegorical power; a western song from before the ‘country &’ became eternally welded to the front; a measured canter of percussion, eerie drones, a fraternal and sororal journey on “a pale night … the moon like a clock ..”. Although delivered entirely differently, it taps right back into that mainspring of songwriting that Nick Cave did circa “Tupelo”; life as peril, tragedy and portent a constant fellow rider.

Kevin Morby, photographed by Johnny Eastlund

There’s songs of new love, deep and feeling, such as “Don’t Underestimate Mid West American Sun”: it opens as a barely adorned strum, background atmospherics bleeding through, porch chimes, background traffic rumble, even pigeons; atop slow guitar glissando, his voice powerfully atmospheric in Orbisonesque reverb: “Don’t go; don’t go, please.” It reads neutrally, even flat, on the page; but like all the best declamation, Kevin sings every drop of yearning into a universal plea. Pared back percussion and ringing piano widen it out from its fireside intimacy and allow it to drop back there again. It’s really bloody touching. You hope she stays with all your heart.

The seven-minute shimmer of “A Night At The Little Los Angeles” is a touching paean to a love forged in sparse living conditions: Kevin here recounting over a caressed guitar in a languid voice, “There’s lovers in the bedroom next door / You can hear them through the paper walls … and the hallways always smelled just like bleach.” Kevin notes in his summation of the album’s lyrical concerns, “a Los Angeles-themed hotel in rural Kansas” – a decompression chamber visited after that sudden transplant, a low-key spot for a snatched night with a new love?

The Little Los Angeles of the title is Kevin’s new Kansan base, immediately decorated with a homesickness for the West Coast; what he noted as “mementos from my previous home, cactus and aloe vera and covering the walls in pinewood,” where Katie “would stay weeks at a time, living quietly beside me – our love taking shape in a quiet refuge from our lives on the road.” Their voices caress each other in the simple refrain, before a measured guitar break. It sounds post-coital in a very real way, that absolute purity and grounded relaxation.

“Wonder” is Robert Zimmerman just gone electric, garagey, ragged and fun; “Velvet Wonder” a little piano-led instrumental sketch, stormy in atmosphere, and the only track on the album on which that instrument takes a lead role.

The titular centrepiece of the album, “Sundowner”, speaks of a shared circadian mood shift he shares with Katie; they’re sundowners, feeling the temperature drop of dusk at a soul-deep, spiritual level. It’s a slow, evocative burn, railing against the end of the day and scaling up and out, against the passing of time and the loss of the metaphorical light; “Hey man, where’d you get your tan .. see I like the sun, but I start to run, oh the moment that the sun runs from me.” It has an absolute timelessness, and pulls off that trick, as elsewhere on the album, of making the simple ring deep and true like a bell in your chest.

The closing track of the ten, “Provisions” follows a similar, if lower-key path of sudden symbolism, motifs, signs in the wider landscape: dead deer on the road ahead, coming storms, leaving before the dawn casts a shadow. The antique organ that Kevin employs throughout gradually makes itself known to atmospheric effect. “Grab provisions, there’s nothing for / A hundred miles,” the refrain; a landscape of old song and tradition and self-reliance. Its a great song to drop down from the heights on; because there’s a clutch of truly emotional barnstormers herein.

In contrast to his last album, Oh My God, Sundowner is a much more bucolic work. He’s lost some of that big-city sonic influence that was present on that 2019 work – the garage and gospel touches – and in Kansas has explored the simple complexity of the 60s’ folk-troubadour aesthetic. And pulls it off, admirably. It was never broke; there was nothing to fix with a talented man laying down three-chord tunes played with intelligence and passion and soul. He feels this, and that rings through. It’s a damn lovely record.

Kevin Morby’s Sundowner will be released by Dead Oceans on digital, CD, trad black and limited sunburst orange vinyl formats on October 16th. If you’re Stateside, you can pre-order yours from the Secretly Canadian store; if you’re in the UK, you can let Rough Trade do the heavy lifting.

You can also catch up with Kevin at his website, on Twitter, on Instagram and Facebook.

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