This Is a Photograph

Kevin Morby

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This Is a Photograph Review

by Fred Thomas

Singer/songwriter Kevin Morby's output has been varied but consistent since he broke camp from his earlier bands Woods and Babies and started making metered, contemplative solo work. Over a quick succession of albums, Morby's songs took notes from rootsy rock icons like Cohen, Dylan, Springsteen, and Young, expanding on their templates with his own lyrical perspectives and a distinctive approach that resulted in a mysterious, slinky brand of songwriting. Seventh album This Is a Photograph sees Morby taking significant steps forward with his craft, both in terms of the album's considered production and the deep soul searching qualities of the songs themselves. The album was set in motion after Morby's father experienced a medical emergency, which led Morby into a phase of intense reflection on family, aging, mortality, and the cruel inevitabilities of time. Morby traveled to Memphis, Tennessee after his father recovered, holing up in the historic Peabody Hotel and writing the songs that would become This Is a Photograph. The music becomes a strange synthesis of Morby's heavy personal reflections and the gritty charm he soaked up from his time in Memphis. The titular opening track is one of his most clearly rendered lyrical statements to date, straightforwardly narrating the feeling of looking at photos of his parents in their youth, strong and ready to take on the world, and contrasting the feelings those images give him with the present reality of their health beginning to fade as they age. The song is built around a circular riff with a twangy funk to it, and it builds from acoustic guitars to driving drums, horns, and backup singers. The melancholic rumination on a lost loved one "Bittersweet, TN" dials the energy down a bit, with banjo plucks and gentle guest vocals from Nashville indie folk singer Erin Rae. It's one of several songs that employs elaborate string arrangements, elevating the tune from Morby's usual strong songcraft into something both more ethereal and more expressive of the song's complex emotions. Strings add not just to the gentler songs, but to the soul-tinged stroll of "Five Easy Pieces" and the intricately arranged "Stop Before I Cry." Morby uses the songs mostly as restrained backgrounds for his poetic reflections from his soul journey, but throws in a few rockers for good measure. "A Random Act of Kindness" slowly gains steam in the same way so many War on Drugs songs do, and "Rock Bottom" cuts straight to the chase with distorted guitars, cowbell, and howls of abandon. Morby reveals his fears, joys, and hopes with these songs in a way more direct and on the surface than any of his other albums. This heightened vulnerability, in conjunction with some of his most involved and best-sounding arrangements, make This Is a Photograph one of the best chapters in an already impressive catalog; one that finds a new artistic depth as it faces some of life's eternal concerns.

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