Singing Saw (Dead Oceans 2016)
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
The best rock music runs on experience — think of how many of your favorite old songs are born from pain — and on his new album, Singing Saw, Kevin Morby sounds like he's had enough of it to last a lifetime of records. Morby is only 27 short years-old, but on "I Have Been to the Mountain" you'd think him three decades older, looking back on a life well-lived from a porch on a shack in the middle of the desert while vultures pick at bones. A former member of folk group Woods and punk band the Babies, Morby has spent the last ten or so years touring the country, and there is surely some road weariness here. But there's also the meat of a more common exhaustion: love, then heartbreak, dissolution, existential longing.
The touchstone here, at least vocally, is Bob Dylan, who also kept trying to flee the franticness of his youth on album after album — until he finally released the rubbed-down winsome country honk of New Morning in 1970. Singing Saw, which moves at the pace of a mule on arid land, owes much to late 1960s/early 1970s Dylan, nowhere more so than in the way Morby's throaty howl recalls the froggy pallor of Bob's later voice. On previous solo projects, Morby's demonstrated himself a good student of the classics, pulling influence from bands like CSNY into his folk-rock-country orbit. Yet Singing Saw is a breakthrough for just how fully formed it is, a beautifully structured and produced record that is nothing short of a triumph. It's chiseled from the past, sure, but now it sounds like Morby's lived enough that he's as inspired by his own personal history as by his vinyl collection.
This is not to say that "I Have Been To the Mountain" or Singing Saw is in any way a bummer. There's something quite serene or sweet about all of its wrinkled wisdom; and Morby has a certain kind of light about him that touches even his darkest despair. Think of it as the quiet hangover that follows a bender. Also: his softer side is garnished by a trio of backup singers (Hannah Cohen, Lauren Balthrop and Alecia Chakor) who follow him throughout the record harmonizing in the background like sirens. You might ask of an artist not yet 30 what mountain he could've possibly climbed at an age still so under-ripe — or you could forgo such questions, and just be glad you have another pretty song for your next hard-won, dog-eared day.