Many musicians know that they’re pigeonholed into certain genres, but it’s often easier to embrace them than oppose them. “Beard rock” was a tag that stirred up James Vincent McMorrow, though, making him question the connotations and fashionability of his crimson facial hair. Even though his last album, Early in the Morning, was glazed in bluegrass machinery and gang vocal harmonies, the very essence of that hirsute faux-genre, the musician believed his songwriting exceeded those limitations.
And he does have a point. Leaders of the movement, Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, don’t really veer away from the beaten path: commencing with minimal guitar chords and vocal hums, gradually adding on more folky accessories, typically a banjo, bass, and/or mandolin, and finally mounting an intense explosion (see: Babel). While there are many bands that have learned to excel in or surpass such repetition, McMorrow packed his bags early and wanted no association. In that sense, Post Tropical, his sophomore album, isn’t just an escape, but the process of discovering confidence in unknown territory. His old-fashioned elements were just excess baggage; the mystery and excitement of his songwriting is propelled instead by a sexy, R&B dreaminess, coated in Rhodes pianos and atmospheric samples.
His first steps hint at a darker consciousness and more vivid images. “I remember, I remember my first love,” McMorrow calls on “Cavalier”, the album’s first single, but the falsetto-ed crooner’s approach is quite deceiving. By ear, this longing is contained and subtle, but there’s painful mourning poking through. This is earthquakes away from Early in the Morning‘s passionately-assembled, nature-leaning admiration. McMorrow’s return angrily shreds this portrait and explores a new beauty.
This reinvention comes largely as a surprise and exceeds expectations. Post Tropical takes similar turns as those undertaken by Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens, who were begged to stay in their beloved styles, but ignored those pleas to achieve even grander feats. He actively attempts to forget the stereotypical Folksinger identity in “Red Dust”, revealing “that once was my vision of birth, now is my vessel and curse,” and “I will not trouble your rest, for my heart is infinitely blessed.” It’s obvious that his roots are embedded in folk, lyrically, but the medium doesn’t fit anymore. This influences McMorrow’s experimentation, meshing his past and an electronic-based future into a test tube.
While walking out on his own has placed McMorrow at a more authoritative and confident position, he still doesn’t sound ready to settle, crooning, “sometimes my hands, they don’t feel like my own/ I need someone to love/ I need someone to hold.” Many recent alt R&B artists have expressed this same lonely sorrow, but McMorrow beautifies it with glowing Rhodes foundations and sample experimentation. The album’s accompanying release described a desire to “give this record the feel and movement of hip-hop records [he's] always loved,” a goal nearly reached. The sustained tones of “Cavalier” ring in easy comparisons to James Blake, matching the deep dreaminess and attack of “Unluck” or “Retrograde”, but differentiating itself with his expansive falsetto. The hook on “All Points” matches the catchiness of How to Dress Well’s “& It Was You” or Autre Ne Veut’s “Counting”, warranting an endless replay loop.
The minimalism of this newfound genre gives McMorrow’s voice a broader palette and much more depth. He’s surely had it all along, but, at times, his folk direction was too straightforward, his vocals caught in the over-full envelope of instrumentation. “Outside, Digging” displays this natural expertise in one of the record’s most outstanding moments. Instead of focusing on calm guitar tracks and keyboard tones, the track builds with swooning vocal hues, spanning from humming undertones to suspenseful harmonies, the combined intensity far beyond the instrumentation that would have overwhelmed him in the past. But, as he reincorporates some steady guitar melody and bass drum thumps to reach the climax, it’s obvious that the natural elements are still warranted.
Instead of taking the razor and nixing “beard rock” characteristics completely, his folk influences glowingly tie together with his hazy electronic confessional. Violin plucking, drum reverberation, and sweet acoustic fingerpicking aren’t typically fitted into this type of album, but McMorrow makes it seem easy, even organic. His guitar builds suspenseful crescendos as skillfully as his vocals, especially in the album’s title track. In addition to its dressing of twinkling bells, he introduces claps and a sweet guitar figure. It feels completely unrelated, at first, but brings McMorrow’s past and present into a seamless union.
Similar to the way that Early in the Morning became a positive addition to the full “beard rock” canon, Post Tropical is an intriguing and rewarding contribution to the alt R&B movement. He sounds at home more than ever before and utilizes his wide array of talents magnificently. While the typical folk musician would be completely lost with such a new direction, McMorrow makes the twists and turns gracefully.
Essential Tracks: “All Points”, “Outside, Digging”, and “Cavalier”