There’s a special kind of loneliness that comes along with big cities. Unlike rural, country towns, you’re surrounded by the bustle of millions of others wrapped up in their busy lives. It’s easy to fall into your own routine and ignore the outside world. Being alone in life surrounded by a crowd of others huddled together creates a dissonance unlike anywhere else. This is the backdrop for City Music, Kevin Morby’s fourth solo album and an ode to his former hometown of New York City. A loose concept album that follows a character trying to make his way alone in the city, it marks a clear progression for the former member of Woods and Babies to emerge as a noteworthy artist in his own right.
Morby envisioned City Music as a “companion” piece to last year’s gospel-tinged folk record, Singing Saw, but influenced by Lou Reed and Patti Smith as opposed to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. City Music unfolds with a brisk energy, a distinct counterpoint to the soothing calm of last year’s breakthrough. It’s claustrophobic at times, filled with a bristling anxiety that erupts in key moments. On “Tin Can”, he sings about observing the city from afar as the music builds up momentum for two minutes before he gives a gentle coo as a cue for the song to explode into a raucous jam. He lets loose on “Aboard My Train”, where a winking homage to Dylan’s “Forever Young” flips into a roaring guitar solo, with a sense of playfulness and excitement that suits him well.
Morby is well aware of his history, and if anything, City Music is packed with too many references and winks that it can be distracting. It works on “Flannery”, an interlude where a friend of Morby’s reads aloud a passage from Flannery O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away, wherein a child entering a large city mistakes the city lights for the fire they were escaping. Morby works in references to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and makes album closer “Downtown Lights” a plea for comfort to the character Mother Sister from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. He covers The Germ’s “Caught in My Eye” and strips the bite from it, making it a tedious ballad. On “1234”, he turns a punchy two-minute burst into an homage to Jim Carroll’s famous “People Who Died” where the names of the Ramones replace Carroll’s friends.
On their own, the references feel like an earnest effort to pay homage to greater works and attempt to work his own into a shared history. Combined, they feel overwhelming and a bit of a crutch, constant reminders that bring to mind anyone but Morby. Compared to a writer like Craig Finn or John Darnielle, who frequently call back to classic works and weave them into their songs to flesh them out and add context in service of the story, Morby’s use of them doesn’t always rise above winks to the listener. When he does it well, it shows, as on the wistful “Night Time”, built around his character moping by the stereo listening to Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and painfully watching as the world passes him by. It’s a delicate balance Morby’s still working to achieve.
For any of his shortcomings as a storyteller, Morby’s guitar skills carry the lead on the album’s standouts. This is best expressed by the title track, a self-described “Velvets jam” built around a single riff for nearly seven minutes. The tempo drags at first, as his noodling pulls the track forward, but soon enough he and the band lock into a groove that snaps midway through. There are echoes of Tom Verlaine as he constructs this immersive jam around his riff and two brief stanzas of lyrics he repeats. By letting his guitar take the lead, Morby is able to capture the nervous, hectic sprawl of the city he admires more effectively than anywhere else on the record with the best song he’s written yet.
City Music marks Morby’s most ambitious album yet, as he expands his palette well beyond his previous work. In addition to the aforementioned sprawling jams, there are the haunting sounds of the nineteenth century organ that open “Come to Me Now”, the soulful blues and gospel backing choir of “Dry Your Eyes”, and the apocalyptic hum of “Pearly Gates”, wherein his character ponders judgment and damnation. His tribute to the allure of the city is a thoughtful homage to his musical idols built around a narrative that’s all too easy to relate to. When the record does stumble, it’s because he’s trying to juggle too many ideas at one time as opposed to a lack of effort. Mostly, City Music succeeds at displaying Morby’s strength as a rocker, and along with Singing Saw, the two together paint him as an artist truly coming into his own.
Essential Tracks: “City Music”, “Tin Can”, and “Aboard My Train”