Rich and thematically earnest
Alfie Verity
21:00 10th May 2022

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Kevin Morby is a keen collector of sounds of natural, earthly beauty, and he weaves these sounds with care into his albums’ sonic maps. Following 2020’s underrated LP Sundowner — which summoned a serene fireside twilight at a rural campsite — Morby’s seventh studio album This Is A Photograph invokes instead a triumphant sunrise, its sound heralding the early glow of a rustic southern American morning. Listening now to the album on an uncharacteristically clear and warm British Saturday feels almost uncoincidental, like the album’s sunlit palette intensifies and brightens the day’s heat.

Where Sundowner felt neatly contained and quiet, This Is A Photograph is broader and noisier; it bursts into action after a brief calm with its title track, a spirited jazzy-folk racket, introducing the frequency at which Kevin Morby will be playing for most of the record. The album is collaboratively lavish; notably, Erin Rae stars in a luscious duet with Morby on ‘Bittersweet, TN’, Makaya McCraven provides some of the record’s drums, and the album even boasts a brief cameo from off-centre comedy heroes Tim Heidecker and Alia Shawkat (they’re the voices giggling maniacally on single ‘Rock Bottom’).

The album is rich and earnest thematically too. This Is A Photograph has its origins in Morby searching through a family photo album while his father had been taken ill in hospital. He spotted a photo of his father as a young man, standing confidently and in good health, an image he references on the title track, singing: “your father on the front lawn, with no shirt on, ready to take the world on”. Morby struggled with the dissonance before him, having to face in that photograph the effect that time has on us all: on our health, our sense of self, our realities. 

The album is shaped by this experience, it exists as a contemplative reflection on time and age, it captures bluesy vignettes of different memories, locations, people, and music. Yet, whereas with photographs we more often than not tend to capture and save specific moments of joy, on This Is A Photograph Morby writes life in all its different forms, the darkness along with the light. It’s even jarring lyrically at times, with some of Morby’s darker reflections appearing in conflict with the album’s generally pleasant sunny tone. 

Altogether, though, This Is A Photograph is a vibrant, considered and full album which does serve a handful of the prettiest moments of Kevin Morby’s entire career. ‘A Coat of Butterflies’ is viscerally gorgeous, a sentimental elegy on life, death, and legacy, which opens with the calming trickle of water and the creak of a wooden rocking chair, leading towards a river of rich choral harmonies and strings. ‘Bittersweet, TN’ is a warm, familiar folk song, and perhaps the most direct moment of age anxiety on the record; both Morby and Erin Rae sum up the album’s main motif with a lyrical delicacy, asking “how does one sail on the waves of time?”

For all its confusion and worry about time and ageing, This is a Photograph does find some answers. On ‘Stop Before I Cry’, a romantic paean to his partner Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, Morby’s anxiety for the future is replaced by an acceptance, a relishing of the here-and-now regardless of the future, and an understanding that while the joy of the present moment may not last forever, we have tools, like photographs or even our memory, to keep it alive nonetheless. Morby sings softly, "Baby if we part, Katie if I hide, then I can live in your songs forever, and you can live in mine".

This sentiment rears its head again on the album closer ‘Goodbye to Good Times’, where Morby sings "when I was a little boy, I wanted to live and breathe inside a song, well how about this one?". Now aged 34, Morby summons his younger self into song, granting him his youthful wish, a sort of retrospective promise that whatever the future holds, he will be okay. It’s a wise end to the album which shows Morby’s careful consideration of its subject matter, and offers some comfort on anxieties around age that plague many of us.

With ‘Goodbye to Good Times’, This Is A Photograph ends ultimately as a grand, thoughtful album which tries to make some sense of life’s unpredictability, and along the way, unearths some knowledge about what makes the present so worth living anyway. 

This Is a Photograph arrives 13 May via Dead Oceans.

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Photo: Press