James Vincent McMorrow: Post Tropical

While there was always an arctic edge to McMorrow, Post Tropical only deepens the powerful sense of cold and chill that cloaks his work. Thank goodness for that.
James Vincent McMorrow
Post Tropical

Recorded in southern Texas, titled Post Tropical, and with a palm tree on the cover, you’d figure that this album would show you a little in the way of warmth. Indeed, overlooking the unlikely Calexico-led collaboration, when I first saw the album’s title and its pastel cover art, I immediately feared a motley collection of mariachi-inspired riffs, soured by bad brass lines and ugly flamenco guitar. Thankfully, the album turned out to be nothing of the sort. Instead, McMorrow has retreated even deeper into the wintry sound established by his first release, Early in the Morning. While there was always an arctic edge to McMorrow — for which he has his ghostly falsetto at least partly to thank — Post Tropical only deepens the powerful sense of cold and chill that cloaks his work. Aware of that arctic element in his music, McMorrow and girlfriend/illustrator Emma Doyle jokingly threaten the tropical paradise of the cover with a polar bear lurking off to the right on a rogue ice floe. And, the truth be told, a little humor goes a long way when airing sentiments like: “There is so little light from the warmth of the sun” (“Outside, Digging”).

Wintry jokes aside, McMorrow has significantly upped the ante with this stellar sophomore album. Though his first album, Early in the Morning displayed moments of intense beauty, it sometimes seems like McMorrow has managed to crystallize those moments even further here. For instance, I’ve always loved the bit at the end of “If I Had A Boat” (not to be confused with Lyle Lovett’s epic tune, of which I suspect McMorrow was unaware), where his voice is nearly breaking with emotion, as he expresses a yearning to escape. Toggle over to the new album, specifically the three and a half minute mark in the third track “Red Dirt”, and listen as McMorrow’s voice — just when you thought that he wasn’t going any higher! — leaps up to a new note and hangs there, suspended over a layer of keyboards and then gracefully swooning back down to end the song. It’s a beautiful and fragile moment, which hits you in the gut with its daring, with just how naked his voice sounds, falsetto over surging synths.

The comparison to Justin Vernon has been made before, and this second album highlights the similarities further. Like McMorrow, Vernon made a big splash with his first album, For Emma, Forever Ago (under the Bon Iver moniker, that is), with a mix of falsetto singing, imagistic (and often inscrutable) lyrics, and a delicate folksy approach. McMorrow’s second album — again, like Vernon’s — approached things from a more slickly produced angle, largely shifting away from acoustic instrumentation towards a palette favoring keyboards and percussion. There are obvious pros and cons here — one being that while McMorrow doesn’t sacrifice the grit and natural, earthy qualities of his voice on the new record, but does sacrifice those elements in the instrumentation. My favorite detail on his first album, which occurs on the standout track “We Can Eat”, is those insistent and ghostly triplets on that single piano key, carrying this absorbing and weirdly propulsive quality that keyboards cannot quite mimic.

The rebuttal, of course, is that McMorrow has simply discovered new ways to propel his songs forward, like those fantastic drums on “All Points” — an effect he never comes close to on Early in the Morning — which are splendidly used to create some powerful tension. Another moment where McMorrow’s precise ear shines is the shimmering layers of mandolins at the start of “The Lakes”, providing an aural painting of the glimmering movements of water, before cutting clear, concise strokes through it with a bass drum and snare. In fact, that’s an insistent and compelling tactic that he makes use of over and again, creating a wavering, frenetic canvas and then making clean, straight marks through it. In “Repeating”, McMorrow deploys a martial drum beat halfway through the song, bringing the song back down to earth just the right amount.

If I have a major complaint about the album (one I also had for the first), it’s the sheer incomprehensibility of the lyrics. I love a detailed and complex musical texture, but so long as there are lyrics, let’s make use of them, eh? McMorrow’s elocutionary talents are practically zilch; for a fun time, pull up whatever lyrics website you frequent and read along to any of his songs — some of the lines will be okay and others will just be nonsense. If there’s a positive to be found here, it’s that those lines sung clearly by McMorrow reverberate powerfully. As glum as they may be, the album’s closing words, warning the listener (lulled by that point by the impenetrability of it all) that “there is so little light from the warmth of the sun”, really reach out and shake you to the bone.

RATING 8 / 10