Kevin Morby’s a wanderer, a journeyman: here today, gone tomorrow. Pretty much every song on Still Life—the second LP in a year’s time from the former Woods bassist/Babies co-founder—finds Morby on the move, setting off to sea or motoring away, never to return again. Listening to the rich, reflective Still Life, it’s easy to picture Morby with a wineskin under his arm, his every worldly possession hitched to his back, an eye constantly fixed on some faraway point on the horizon. All this wayfaring’s clearly taught him a few things; catch him in just the right mood, and he’s got stories to share, hard-earned wisdom to impart.
Morby’s joined on Still Life by guitarist/bassist Rob Barbato (who also produces), drummer Justin Sullivan, organist Will Canzoneri, and—on three songs—bassist H. Hawkline. This skeleton crew—many of whom joined Morby on last year’s similarly gorgeous Harlem River—gives Still Life its scrupulous, unshowy sound: deliberate fretwork, sparse percussion, wisps of organ and tinkling pianos dancing around the edges of the frame. Morby’s warm, reedy sigh is front-and-center throughout most of these songs, and his halting, ruminative delivery keeps you hanging on his every word. Still Life is steeped in Dylan‘s back-to-basics period at the turn of the ’60s, carefully adorned but never skeletal; from the beating-heart bassline that sits underneath “Drowning” to the drunken horns that close out the eight-minute “Amen”, Still Life is sumptuous, slightly rickety, offhandedly gorgeous.
Morby’s a judicious lyricist, able to flesh out a scene with just a few carefully-chosen details. The situations on Still Life never quite seem to have a fixed beginning or end, as though Morby’s knows it’d take too long to explain exactly where he’s been and can’t rightly say just where he’s going to end up next. Two songs in, we meet Arlo Jones, a drunken lout of Morby’s acquaintance. Halfway through the song, Morby quite literally starts listing off everything he can remember of the titular Jones, yet he only gets to number three on this nine-item rundown before he begins to repeat himself. But you come away from “The Ballad of Arlo Jones” learning just as much about the guy telling the story as you do its subject; Morby’s impassioned wails of “He was my friend!” suggest a longing for connection, no matter how temporary.
The short, spirited “Motors Running”, a none-too-fond fare-thee-well to a fellow traveler, gives you almost nothing in terms of backstory: “We had just gotten started,” Morby sings, “with black shadows coming out of your door.” But in just a few lines, he manages to tell you everything you need to know: you can stay, Morby seems to be saying, but I’ve gotta keep moving. Throughout Still Life, Morby will introduce a character or describe a situation, but you never get the sense that these are permanent fixtures in Morby’s life so much as markers on the long, oft-lonesome road he’s traveling on.
All this roving has Morby thinking long and hard about impermanence; if travel is Morby’s favorite subject, death is an awfully close second. “I’m not dead,” he assures himself halfway through “Amen”, “but I’m dying—so slow, so slow.” The song ends with a vision: the phrase “expect death” comes to him “gently, like a leaf on top of water.” It’s as though Morby, after years on the road, can actually feel himself coming unmoored, and this—like everything else—he seems to greet with a kind of quiet acceptance, a wisdom well beyond his years. Still Life doesn’t dwell on the past, but occasionally, Morby alludes to the things he’s left behind with a certain stoicism: “They say all that i’ve done wrong/ One day is gonna find me” he sings on “Drowning”. Morby, forever playing things close to the chest, might not take the time to spell out every mistake. But when he delivers that line, there’s an ocean of regret lingering in his throat.
The title Still Life is both a nod—to a piece by New York pop artist Maynard Monrow—and something of a joke: Morby recently pulled up roots in Brooklyn and became a full-time Los Angelino. Throughout Morby’s many travels, you can sense a longing for some stability, a homebase, a place of his own to return to. “If you don’t see me in the evening,” he sings on the closing “Our Moon”, “look at our moon, up in its night.” By the song’s end, Morby seems to’ve finally found himself some suitable company, someone to join him as he makes his next move. “Sing to me in the morning,” he asks, “keep me warm from the storm outside.” In just a few words, Morby manages to say everything he needs.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1odAaYR