Kevin Morby’s brilliant ‘Sundowner’ is more than a concept album. In ten songs, he creates a whole world of modern folk tales inhabited by friendly spirits and wandering souls.
Stream: ‘Sundowner’ – Kevin Morby
A lot of Kevin Morby’s music seems to come from an obsession with specific words or phrases. He takes an idea and turns it into an exploration of meaning and possible outcomes. Pop music uses repetition as a way to provide comfort and familiarity. The point of a catchy chorus is that it always sounds the same – you know what to expect and when it is coming. Morby does almost the opposite of that. He’ll use a line to create tension throughout an entire record, experimenting to see how many times he can sing it and still make it work.
In his 2019 album Oh My God, he sang “oh my god” over twenty times across several songs, blurring the lines between the expression’s different uses: shock, awe, excitement, prayer. Kevin Morby’s music could make the case that repetition doesn’t even exist because no two moments are ever the exact same. There’s always a slight variation in the context, or the melody, or in how he changes the inflection from one syllable to another. Instead of making the listener look forward to a big payoff with anticipation, he uses simple hooks to trap us in a trance-like state and then release us at will.
Morby’s most recent record Sundowner was put out last October by Dead Oceans. Following the steps of its predecessor, it also contains a lot of recurring motifs, starting once again with the album name, which we’ll get to in a minute. I can begin by saying it is a brilliant work of indie-folk, but to call it just that would be a massive disservice. This record is a masterclass on how to create a work of art that is contained and understated while managing to be experimental, weird, and even psychedelic. It shows just how interesting music primarily composed on an acoustic guitar can still be.
Sundowner kicks off with “Valley” and “Brother, Sister,” two songs that introduce us into a world that we don’t yet know. Like a film in which the first few scenes only make complete sense later on, once you have more information and a better sense of the path you’ve traveled. For example, in “Valley,” Morby places himself between a valley below him and the sky above him. If you listen to this song separately there’s nothing strange about him singing.
In the sky above me
In the sky above
Mama all the stars are broken
For either me or you or us
The sky is not an unusual source of inspiration. But as one advances through the album, it becomes clear that here the sky is a main character and not just a passive blue scenery. When you listen to Sundowner as a whole, you understand this is a sky where spirits are sent when they die. A sky that is a thousand years old. A sky that has a big mouth. A sky that is a place you can go to and is sometimes closed.
“Brother, Sister” has a western feel to it, both in its narrative about a dead man accompanying his sister in some sort of revenge journey and in its sound with eerie atmospheres and a galloping rhythm. Kevin Morby is really good at incorporating dialogue in lyrics. Entire conversations flow naturally in his verses, like this powerful exchange between the brother and sister.
When we get there brother, I want them to see your eyes
No, go from behind sister, they should be surprised
Hit them hard sister, then get to running
I will brother, they’ll never see it coming
Their whole lives brother: laughter, love and trust
‘Til now sister, when they meet us
Again, this is something that happens many times throughout the album. Paying attention to the lyrics can sometimes feel like listening in on other people’s conversations. This track provides the first clues that we might be in a dream-like world or maybe a portal between the dead and the living, whatever it is our rules and logic do not apply.
Then comes the title track. There are two definitions I found for what a “sundowner” is. The first one is a person that becomes increasingly irritated or confused as the day progresses to night. It comes from an actual neurological phenomenon called sundown syndrome. The second one is a hobo, used particularly in Australia to refer to vagrants who used to arrive just before sunset to a farm in order to avoid that day’s work but still get free shelter and food.
The words in the song would suggest that Morby took inspiration from the first of these concepts.
See I like the sun, but I start to run
oh, the moment that the sun runs from me
I am a sundowner
Don’t let the sun go down on me
The Australian meaning also fits surprisingly well with the album’s feeling and imagery of campfires, open spaces, and roaming spirits. However, there’s no point in trying to pin down exactly what all these lyrics mean. A sundowner becomes whatever the listener is at the moment. The sundowners in the album (yes, there’s more than one and they appear in more than one song) are searching for peace, belonging, and love. Who isn’t? These songs are not cryptic just for the sake of sounding interesting, there’s actually something to find there. What that is depends completely on your subjective experience, but there’s enough beauty, heartbreak, and hope in there to piece it together.
With that said, I’ll keep my lyrical interpretations to myself and focus on the musical side of things, which is just as special. A lot of Kevin Morby’s songs have a certain moment in which a sudden change in melody or an intensified delivery is enough to leave you breathless. This is closely related to what I said some paragraphs back about how he uses simple hooks to catch our ears to then throw us somewhere new. “Sundowner” begins with an unmistakable air of Leonard Cohen as a melancholic acoustic guitar arpeggio courses underneath a smoky soft-spoken voice. It’s a lovely tune that changes very little for three minutes. It lulls you into a calm vibe and once it has you there, the melody switches mid-verse to a pulsing loop that breaks a single sentence into a set of twelve hard-hitting moans. Kevin gets into a repetition of the same two-note melody like a broken record and when he comes back as if nothing had happened, it blows the song wide open, like a flock of birds flying from a tree into the sky all at once. It’s fucking beautiful.
He does something similar three minutes into “Campfire,” a track in which he takes the freedom to stop halfway and include a barely audible recording of an actual campfire and a friend singing a completely different song from a distance. When his voice returns, it jumps into a series of short, fast-paced repeating melodies that are a highlight in a whole album full of stunning moments.
Watch: “Campfire” – Kevin Morby
At times, he might begin straight off with an energetic riff and run with it for a whole song, as he does on the fantastic “Wander,” which echoes Patti Smith’s self-assured punk essence and poetic performances from her early years. At others, like in “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun,” he keeps things extremely plain with a minimal elegance. Beats don’t get any simpler than that one, in fact, it is more of a metronome click than a proper beat. It goes to show how little production an artist needs when there’s so much substance in the composition itself.
Morby is always aware of what the songs are asking of him. No sound in Sundowner is there without a reason. There’s no need to fill spaces or make songs feel fuller. “A Night At The Little Los Angeles” is a song so delicate that even stretching over seven minutes long, it never needs more than a few sparse bass lines, backing vocals, and atmospheric guitars to captivate with unhurried softness. While “Jamie” only contains a single unexpected perfect arrangement towards the end of the track. These details don’t originate from the norms of a genre or style, but from the unique world that he has created.
There’s so much more I could still say and ponder about Sundowner, but most of the great things about it are the kind that don’t really translate into words anyways. You have to press play and dive into it. It’s only been a few months, but it feels like the kind of album that can last for a lifetime. You can explore it once and again, just as Kevin Morby does when he obsesses over a word. You can hop from grim landscapes to inspiring friendships and live in them for hours at a time. Perhaps you’ll run into the sky or some other lost spirits and they’ll ask “Hey, who are you?” and you can answer “I’m a sundowner too.”
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? © 2020
an album by Kevin Morby