MUSIC | Morby's new album, which released on June 16th, could be his best yet
Like in the album's cover, in City Music Kevin Morby looks himself in the eyes.
In the cover art for ever nostalgic singer songwriter Kevin Morby's new album City Music, released on June 16th, we see Morby looking himself in the eyes over his shoulder into a mirror. The mirror, dark and wooden, lies on a wooden dresser with doilies and framed photographs on top of it. With pearls of light spotted onto his face, Morby is the focal point of the image - the only part that is truly in focus. Curly dirty blonde hair frames his face, and the rest of the photograph disappears into a blur of gray scale - delineated only by the sharp darkness of the mirror's frame. If you zoom in on the bottom of the image, you will see, in tiny white font, "*Ten new songs, a Germs cover, and a Flannery O'Connor passage read by Meg Baird."
The cover art shows Morby in a different light than we are used to seeing him in. The image - taken in the format of a black and white film photograph - feels fitting for the retro sound he is known for, music that often can feel indiscernible from what was being made in the 60's and 70's on Laurel Canyon. The image is feminine, Morby is wearing a polka dot dress covered by a large white cotton sweater, and looking into a vanity mirror. The image is soft, and the light on his face is fuzzy. The image is soft - varying greatly from the album cover of Morby's 2016 album Singing Saw which was rated Best New Music by Pitchfork.
In the cover art for Singing Saw we see Morby dressed sharply in blue. Instead of looking at himself, in Singing Saw Morby is looking straight at us, the viewer. He is in the hills, hiking, with twinkling city lights in the far distance. Behind him is a fire - this fire imagery being mirrored in tracks like "Destroyer" and "Water." In Singing Saw, an organic album about destruction, we see Morby in a different light than what is seen in City Music.
Like in the album's cover, in City Music Kevin Morby looks himself in the eyes. He does so through the imagery and experience of moving to a new city, through feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm that come from being an outsider in society, and through the fictional upper Manhattan character Mabel.
In the album's opening track, "Come to Me Now," we are introduced to Mabel. Mabel is, as Morby explained in a track by track explanation of the album for NPR, "an old, reclusive woman… living in an unknown part of uptown Manhattan. Mabel spends her time alone and doesn't enjoy the sun. She draws the blinds and waits for the moon to come out, for the day to sink away and for the night to expose itself. Only then does she feel any relief." In "Come to Me Now" we become first exposed to Mabel, and to the imagery of being alone in a big city - a theme which remains present throughout the album.
The second song on the album, "Crybaby", is about estrangement and feeling distanced from society. As Morby explained to NPR, the song is about "existing outside of society and how, on a gloomy day, that can be exhausting - to feel so much - to be so sensitive to such an abrasive world. So why don't you cry, you crybaby?" Morby is looking himself in the eyes in "Crybaby" - the song is both sensitive and critical of the burden of being an outsider, and one of the strongest on the album.
Other tracks on the album sing of similar feelings of estrangement, and nod to musical and lyrical influences. In the album's third song, "1234," Morby pays homage to The Ramones - in which he literally names each founding member. The ninth track on the album, "Caught in My Eye" is a germs cover. The sixth song, "Flannery," is a reading of a Flannery O'Connor passage performed by musician Meg Baird, who is also featured in "Caught in My Eye". On the choice to include this reading in the album, Morby said to NPR that he found "the idea of someone who's never seen a city - not even from afar - seeing one in the distance for the first time and mistaking it for a fire" compelling.
We also get two more installments from Mabel. In "Tin Can" we hear about Mabel feeling trapped in her uptown apartment, with lyrics like "I live high, oh my tin can up in the sky, all those people down below, oh that city I long to know," and "I am a prisoner here, and I don't mind." The last we hear from Mabel is in the tenth track on the album, "Night Time." As Morby explained to NPR about "Night Time," "again, here we have Mabel, taking comfort in the nighttime happening in the streets below her, thriving off of the energy of others she cannot connect with and remembering friends from the past. All the while she is half-drunk, with sad songs playing on her stereo, daring the world to 'turn me on, don't turn on me'."
City Music has been one of the most anticipated releases of 2017, and it delivered. In a 2016 review of Morby's album Singing Saw journalist Mark Richardson wrote that "Morby's own albums keep getting better" - and that certainly seems to still be the case with City Music. After listening to City Music a couple times now I can't help but wonder if it's Mabel we're seeing on the cover.