Kevin Morby Explores Solitude in the City
Living in a city can be easily romanticized. There is the glamour of the buildings and lights, a seemingly endless flurry of activity, and there are all the different people to befriend. The other side of that coin, though, is a city’s ability to make its inhabitants feel lonely and anonymous. Even with all the people to see and things to do, cities can offer a significant amount of solitude. This is the aspect of city life that singer-songwriter Kevin Morby chose to explore with his recent album City Music. On the largely melancholic work, Morby uses city living as a representation of his own difficulties living outside of the mainstream.
Many of the songs on City Music are portrayed through the lens of a fictional character Mabel, who is a reclusive older woman grappling with her own solitude amid the hustle of the city. While her connection to Morby’s own perspective is unclear, she gives voice to a certain segment of society who struggle to fit in. In the album’s first song “Come to Me Now,” Mabel laments on her solitude with the words: “Ain’t got a friend in a world like this / there is a fortress around my heart / ‘til death do we part.” She also shows disdain for her city in one of the song’s more memorable lines, “I can’t wait for the sun to go down / tired of squinting at this ugly little town.” There are hints of a grumpy elder, but on a deeper level, she portrays a feeling of disillusionment torward her home that likely once gave her pleasure.
Mabel’s story isn’t entirely gloomy, though, as evidenced later on the album in the song “Tin Can.” Here she returns to her observational disposition from her high-rise apartment but now with a seemingly larger sense of inner peace. She says, “All those people down below, oh they’re just people that I long to show that I’m fast, that I’m game / so much bigger than the hole I came / I’m not no one, not empty space / just a stranger in a strange, strange place.” There’s a sense of purpose here, as she wants to prove that she has a unique identity among the masses. Later, she writes, “I sing I am a prisoner here / but I don’t mind,” which is a departure from her previously hopeless demeanor into a more content frame of mind.
While the character of Mabel is likely a vehicle to communicate some of Morby’s own sentiments, he offers more direct personal admissions elsewhere on City Music. He seems to fluctuate in his own beliefs the beauties and struggles of city living. On “Crybaby,” for example, he writes about his own loneliness: “All alone on a crowded street / I never was someone you’d want to meet.” This song is perhaps the clearest indication that his references to city life may apply to the larger context of living outside of mainstream society. Later on the song list, however, we get the album’s title track, which is a musical depiction of the dynamism of the city. With the simple lyrics, “Oh, that city music / oh, how you’re pulling my heart strings… oh, how you make my heart beat,” the words act as an underlying sentiment for the instrumentally driven track. The song goes through many evolutions in speed and style, reflecting the vitality of the city. The two songs underscore Morby’s complex yet captivating relationship with city living.
The music and production on City Music is mostly minimal, often using only guitars, drums, and slightly affected vocals. Morby portrays life in a city as all at once invigorating and forlorn. He creates different moods with each track to communicate these interwoven dynamics. The compositions don’t really stand out for their innovation, but they serve Morby’s purpose in cultivating impressionistic musical portrayals of complex emotions.
Anyone who has lived in or spent some time in cities will quickly be able to relate to City Music. While the album could never speak to the millions of perspectives and experiences in cities, the moods that Morby portrays are not far away from one’s consciousness. The album resonates in a larger context as well, for anyone who has ever grappled with feelings of loneliness, or like their lives go against the norm. It’s a viewpoint that may not be communicated very often even though it persists among us. And on City Music, Morby works his way through the complex emotions with sensitivity and musical beauty.