Humans of New York is one of the internet’s most captivating websites, sharing stories about the people born in the Big Apple and those who moved there to start new lives. From the heartbreaking to the inspiring, from successes to those struggling to survive, the site puts a human face to one of the world’s most chaotic and exhilarating metropolises on the planet. Kevin Morby adopts a similar approach on his new album, City Music.
Loosely based around his time living in New York City while performing with Woods and The Babies, City Music is part storytelling and another part confessional. Throughout the album, Morby easily moves between being a song’s narrator and its protagonist. The songs brim with enthusiasm while others reflect the stress of living within the confines of a concrete, metallic labyrinth.
The album’s bookends illustrate the dichotomy of urban life. Filled with the doleful moans of an organ and the steely echo of the guitar, “Come to Me Now” is a brooding, haunting opener that reveals the loneliness of a woman named Mabel. The city in this case is her prison, a place from which she cannot escape but instead must endure. As Morby eloquently sings:
“Pretty and slow
Pretty and thin
Ain’t got no friend
In a world so big
Ain’t got no family
Ain’t got no kin
Where do you go?”
The folk number “Downtown Lights” closes the album with a tender ballad. Morby’s vocals are delicate, with a bedroom-like intimacy that lingers within the solemn instrumentation. The story is introspective as he explains how a man can always return home after escaping the bright lights of the city.
In between these two songs is the chaos that reigns within the urban landscape. Inspired by and dedicated to The Ramones, “1234” stands out from the pack for its upbeat, punkish quality. It shows that every person has another side that is rarely seen. The uplifting and groovy, classic rock ‘n roll number, “Aboard My Train”, is Morby acting as the conductor and inviting all the people he’s met to join him on a ride across the city. The seven-minute title track is a lavish extravagance inside the mind of a man wandering the streets of his beloved city. Its first half is a lush, idyllic soundscape before it unfurls into a hand-clapping, hip-shaking number. You cannot help but feel this is Morby’s way of saying goodbye to New York one last time.
As well as he captures life inside the city, Morby also brilliantly reflects the emotions of those wanting to be let inside. The hazy, ’70s-inspired folk-rocker “Crybaby” is the story of a person who feels like a misunderstood outsider, much like Mabel.
“I never was someone you would want to meet
Just want to be a normal man
Just to go out shaking hands.”
On the fun and quirky “Tin Can”, Morby sings about Mabel’s reluctance to be part of the chaos. Yet, she longs to be known and befriended. “I’m not no one, not empty space. Just a stranger in a strange, strange place”, he sings over a groovy bass line and tickling guitar work. The terrific “Dry Your Eyes” echoes Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. Like these iconic artists, Morby masterfully creates a moody yet serene atmosphere, which perfectly captures the feeling of a person lost in a city she knows well.
Like with all things, there must be an end, and Morby makes the inevitable feel exhilarating on “Pearly Gates”, arguably the album’s highlight. The song is a playful and warm examination of life after all the lights have gone dark. It is a celebration of what is to come and the hope that something as enrapturing as hearing a choir in full song awaits us in the afterlife. And thus, a new adventure begins in a place possibly as chaotic as the one we left. For now as we wait for our judgment day, we will bask in the world that Morby has created, wandering its many streets and learning every story. City Music is a splendid album that does something very few other records do: it puts a human face to the music.
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