Album Review: Kevin Morby – This Is A Photograph

[Dead Oceans; 2022]

Kevin Morby’s an everyman living the American Dream. The Texas-born, Kansas City transplant singer-songwriter is 34 years old and already has two successful indie rock bands in Woods and The Babies on his resume, all before carving out a section of Americana for himself via seven solo records. He’s lived in multiple cities across the United States – from Los Angeles to New York City – and travels to unexpected locales to influence his artistry.

Case in point, This is a Photograph, Morby’s seventh solo effort, came to him via family and influences, leading him to sync with previous collaborator Sam Cohen in Memphis, TN. Morby can attribute some of his recent success to Cohen, who lent his production skills to Morby’s solo breakthrough Singing Saw back in 2016, and returned for the densely rattling Oh My God in 2019.

Post-Singing Saw has been a bit rocky for Morby. Its immediate follow-up, City Music was a jovial moment with throwbacks to classic rock and pop, but with Oh My God and 2020’s Sundowner, Morby’s veered into less ecstatic territory, opting for stripped back compositions that didn’t failed to illicit the same excitement.

Locale’s always played a pivotal role in Morby’s material, and his time spent in Memphis directly comes into play for This is a Photograph. Holed up in the Peabody Hotel, Morby soaked in the essence of his influencers, then streamlined them into his own consciousness. This is especially true on “A Coat of Butterflies”, a heartfelt homage to late Jeff Buckley who passed away 25 years ago this month in the city.

This is emblematic ofThis is a Photograph, which is all about the connections the songwriter has to places and people. The title track reaches into the past, with Morby peering into a box of photo albums and discovering a photo of his father, young and bare-chested, posing on the lawn. Hours before discovering the photo, that same bare-chested man collapsed in front of Morby and was rushed to the hospital. These real-life instances are windows to not only the past but to Morby’s good-natured soul.

This is a Photograph is also a love-letter to Morby’s most prized influences, such as the Jay Reatard-riddled “Rock Bottom”, a laughter-filled hail Mary of a cut that while a fraction the length of the other notable Reatard tribute – Deerhunter’s gloriously somber “He Would Have Laughed” – still manages to capture the same endearing tone in the face of a tragedy.

The most important relationship of all is that with his partner. For the better part of the last five years Morby’s been in a relationship with Katie Crutchfield, aka Waxahatchee. They met while touring, and have collaborated frequently via Instagram live cover sessions, and even worked together for a cover of the Velvet Underground classic “After Hours”. Until this moment they’ve not explicitly referenced each other on record, but Morby drops the façade and reaches out to her on the meditative “Stop Before I Cry”, promising “I can live in your songs forever, and you can live in mine”. As romantic strings and twinkles emerge, the depth of his love is revealed even further; “‘Cause Katie when you sing to me / It’s like a melody comin’ off the mountain / Comin’ out the sea / Stoppin’ at the plains / Up into a Mеmphis sky.”

There’s a very real sense of adoration in Morby’s words on This is a Photograph for his influences and loved ones. Even in his lost moments, like “A Random Act of Kindness” where he repeats “Out of time, out of money”, he searches out the hope while faced with setbacks and sorrow. It’s in these moments that Morby shines as that everyman – a role he has been crafted into through those various influences he holds up so high.