Kevin Morby

Oh My God

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On the four albums leading up to Oh My God, singer/songwriter Kevin Morby channeled some of rock & roll's greatest heroes, calling on various phases of Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and others with rootsy tunes that breathed with restless longing. The mystique of the songs was supported by fully fleshed-out arrangements and sharp, guitar-centered production. Fifth album Oh My God is a different beast, relying on loose thematic concepts and conceptual arrangements alike to drive its sprawling 14 tracks. Morby worked again with producer Sam Cohen (who assisted with the songwriter's 2016 album Singing Saw) and instead of the dense instrumentation of earlier work, Cohen suggested some songs be stripped down to just a few spare elements. Pairing skeletal arrangements with themes of religion and air travel (and sometimes both) evokes a very different feeling than the dusty nostalgia that earmarked his earlier albums. Songs based largely around piano or organ, and lyrics that sound appropriated from hymns or traditional spiritual songs, cycle throughout the album's 50-minute running time. With the piano trills of the album-opening title track, Morby creates a world that teeters eerily between heavenly escape and worldly tribulation. Backing from a choir on even the more high-volume songs reinforces the weird and somewhat vague perspective on religion and devotion that much of the album is spent exploring. This can be exciting, as on the driving and percussion-heavy "No Halo," or feel a little listless on meandering tracks like the droning "Nothing Sacred/All Things Wild." Soft saxophone riffing and interjections from the choir feel especially beautiful when introduced into empty arrangements. Ultimately, however, the strongest moments on Oh My God come when Morby returns to the full instrumentation of his earlier records. The bounding groove of "Hail Mary" comes close to the bleary crackle of Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan, and wouldn't work without its big drums and layers of intertwined guitars and piano. Similarly, the full-bodied "Congratulations" feels more inspired than some of the slighter arrangements, the cathedral-like reverb on the drums becoming another instrument in the arrangement. Morby's gifts for songwriting are strong and his accompanying players color his vision wonderfully, in particular the shredding guitar soloing from Meg Duffy, synth weirdness from Elvis Perkins, and harp from Mary Lattimore. Oh My God struggles to balance the austere with the earthly and would have been a better record with about four or five fewer songs. Still, though, it comes close to its ambitious goals of double-album greatness and the highlights represent some of Morby's most focused and wizened work yet.

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