Kevin Morby - Sundowner
Oct 16, 2020
84
The moment I heard Kevin's second single for this record—"Campfire"—with its moeity (marked by the hinge of Katie's eerie vocals), its rustic organ, and worn-in atmosphere, I knew I was in for something special. Sundowner, the singer-songwriter's sixth and best record, opens up new landscapes and affective resonances within Morby's signature sound: a freewheeling and exploratory approach that reanimates classic American mythologies and the fantasies they bear: how such fantasies appear as always just beyond our reach; and how that inevitable deferral structures the immanent ordinary.

Sonically diverse, Sundowner vitalizes the well-worn acoustic guitar balladeer trope with tasteful production and thoughtful songwriting: a record that seems to weave in and out of itself, navigating the hinge between the tangible now and the intangible next-ness: its potential promise and divestment. Even the simplest cuts here—like opener "Valley" or "Don't Underestimate Midwest American Sun"—seemingly just homespun acoustic ballads, are warm and sweetly-performed in a way that never really gets old. On the latter, particularly, despite the rather kitsch electronic drumbeat of its chorus, Kevin actually sounds deeply smitten, in love. Thinking of him and Katie (from Waxahatchee) just brings a smile to my face—there's a real infectious romanticism at stake, here. It's the small things—like the quiet dog barking sample at the end of that track, or the warm crackle of campfire on, you guessed it, "Campfire"—that really mark this record, for me. Meanwhile, the gritty garage edge to the guitar and percussion on "Wander", as well as the track's rather abrupt ending, actually offers a very welcome change of pace.

Even the two-chord reverie of the seven-minute "A Night at the Little Los Angeles" feels like a suitably tranquil and meditative extended moment of reflection, well justified and situated in the album's tracklist. Unlike, say, the new Fleet Foxes record—which felt so over-produced and crowded, to me—tracks like these impress me with how thoughtfully they seem to respect open space, as if in enactment of the midwestern plains by which they are so clearly inspired. Most tracks here are touched-up with instrumentation only at pivotal moments, but otherwise leave room for warmth of Kevin's guitar and his affecting vocal inflections to really take hold. "Jamie", another highlight, feels comfortably muted, which might otherwise disguise its rather surreal lyricism ("they came back down with a piano in their mouths). Weird, staccato piano riffs embellish the song's last few seconds with a sense of character. That's the great thing about Sundowner: while it certainly finds itself situated in a recognizable lineage of Americana music, the record really has a clarion sense of identity, especially in its more abstract inflections (take the coltish and drifting piano of "Velvet Highway", for instance).

Yes, Kevin's lyricism might sometimes seem, at a cursory glance, to border, just a bit, on the banal, but recurring, playful lyrical motifs lend the record a sense of purpose and cohesion—like the playful "bum bum bum bum" that Kevin references on cuts like "Brother, Sister", and "Wonder". As I've elsewhere suggested, Sundowner features more varied and emphatic vocal delivery from my man, Kevin—perhaps the best of his career.

All of this adds up to perhaps my favorite Kevin Morby LP to date, a record that somehow manages to synthesize and accumulate its various heterogenous tones into a quiet meditation on the inevitabilities of departure. We're left with an endearing embrace of the incipient uncertainty of each new day: "Grab provisions," Kevin resolves, on the record's gorgeous closer. "There's nothing for a hundred miles. And cast your vision on the dark road for a while". To be a Sundowner is to strike out, to chase each fading sunset: and to smile at the assortment of affections that mark you along the way.

Favorites: "Campfire", "Provisions", "Velvet Highway", "Jamie", "A Night at the Little Los Angeles", "Sundowner", "Wander"
Least favorite: "Brother, Sister"
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