When pressing play on Singing Saw, Kevin Morby’s third solo album, it’s a surprise to find that the weary voice behind this contemplative, spiritual work is only 28. Further, Morby’s career to this point has been lengthy and loaded, having spent extensive tenures as both the bassist for psych folk group Woods and the co-vocalist for The Babies, his group with Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls. Morby’s already had a long career and been able to indulge varying inclinations, and the blues-filled folk of his first two solo albums after leaving both projects felt like a natural extension. For album three, he seems to have found gospel, approaching his work with a sense of soulful homage that helps to distinguish him from the modern folk rockers like Kurt Vile and Steve Gunn that he is frequently compared to.
On Morby’s earlier records, he displayed a fascination with religious imagery that he explores to a further degree here. Envisioning himself as an Old Testament prophet, he proselytizes from the mountaintop, filled with a message of vengeance and wrath. Morby reportedly wrote the single “I Have Been To the Mountain” as a direct response to the death of Eric Garner, and the weight of the symbols he references reinforce his righteous fury. On other moments like the lilting waltz of “Destroyer”, he asks the almighty for the whereabouts of loved ones as if he were a folk singer traveling the Appalachians in the ‘40s rather than a millennial living in Los Angeles. There’s a faithfulness to his approach that works here.
His lyrics have been criticized in the past for being too vague or boilerplate, but by coating them in this language, sermonizing about destruction and rebirth, Morby displays his growth. He may rely too heavily on symbolism, as the water of baptism, the black flowers rising out of the garden, and the ferris wheel as a metaphor for life are wells that have been tapped into time and time again. The natural earthiness to his writing gives it some color, and his willingness to commit fully to this persona of the pensive troubadour helps keep the familiar from becoming tiresome.
Morby chose the name Singing Saw for his album as it represents the duality of a tool that has a functional, destructive intent and also an instrument that can be used to make serene music, a noble aim to aspire to, as one could describe his workmanlike, prolific approach to making music in a similar manner. It would be even better if he didn’t refer to the saw multiple times throughout the record, but restraint isn’t quite Morby’s intention on any aspect of the record, which mostly works to his favor.
Morby’s first solo albums were fine work, the latter of which expanded his love of americana and blues by incorporating horns to a more traditional rock setup. Singing Saw finds him doubling down, adding lush orchestral arrangements, backing gospel vocalists, saxophone, and trumpet to flesh out his songs. Between the added instrumentation and crisp production, the growth of musicianship on display is exponential. Whether it was expanded resources coming from his move to Dead Oceans, patience and tinkering from the two years he spent working on it, or a combination of both, the choices Morby made paid off well, as his music in any project has never sounded as clean and expansive as it does here.
Whether its dissatisfaction or weariness, there is a sense of resignation that pervades Singing Saw, with Morby finding poignancy in feeling numb. “I’m pale like a moon, or I’m empty like a room,” Morby proclaims on the lovely, understated “Drunk and On a Star” moments before paraphrasing a famous Vonnegut quote: “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” This uneasy disconnect with life and yearning to feel something, whether it comes through faith, people, or introspection, rings throughout the record. While his approach of closely recreating classic sounds may not come as effortless as contemporaries like Tobias Jesso Jr., Morby makes up for that by conveying deeper emotions, with true substance to his songs.
Morby is an old soul throughout Singing Saw. A tired traveler taking a pause, the artist finds time to reflect here, questioning the choices he’s made and directly confronting his inner turmoil. As such, gospel and folk fit perfectly; the pairing of Morby’s thematic and stylistic approach finds real success. While he may not be breaking new ground here, Morby shows that there’s plenty of resonance yet to be mined from familiar tropes while also finally finding a distinct voice within.
Essential Tracks: “I Have Been To The Mountain”, “Drunk And On A Star”, and “Destroyer”