James Vincent McMorrow belongs to a class of contemporary male vocalists who sing like they’re moments away from lapsing into silence; not like they’re moments away from seizing another’s flesh, like sex-obsessed R&B crooners Miguel and Jeremih, or from dissipating into a mytho-cosmic haze, like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, but rather from falling dead silent. Perpetually, these singers are on the brink of some quarantined void — a place of despair, hurt, and vitiating self-pity tucked just behind the rib cage. Thanks to the pervasive influence of Iron & Wine’s hushed-voice aesthetic, their number has grown markedly. McMorrow, Bon Iver, Keaton Henson, and Angus Stone, to name just a few, all fit this bill. They sing in whispers that are unsure of their own existence. Their melodies quiver and shake like the sadness they issue from is a whirlpool sucking them backward. On his 2010 debut Early in the Morning and, to a lesser extent, on 2014’s lushly produced Post Tropical, McMorrow adopted this style and squeezed every drop of emotion he could out of it. We Move, however, marks a sudden detour: here, the Irish singer-songwriter sounds loud and clear, his modern R&B and blue-eyed soul influences granting him a melodic confidence that his previous records have lacked.
Lead single “Rising Water” introduces this new sound without apology. With retro-chic synth splotches, wordless effusions, and a driving drum/bass chug that seems intent to move forward with the song in tow or not, the track barrels along, pushing McMorrow’s vocal — still the teary-eyed falsetto it’s always been, but with more substance, more reason to be — into a current of longing that seems to stretch endlessly through the “nowhere” where the lyric takes place. Aside from perhaps the sinuous, call-and-response folk-R&B of “Get Low”, it’s the record’s best moment. A pop song to its marrow, a blistering surge of nostalgia for a lost love, it shows McMorrow in a whole new light, one that suits him well. Indeed, “Rising Water” isn’t just an excuse for his ethereal soul-howl to bend and sparkle; it’s a fully fleshed-out composition that uses his voice to magnify the world of drowning souls and abandoned cars that the lyric fashions.
“You make me feel / Alive, in spite of rising water,” he sings, a rush of bass notes breaking behind him like a flood bursting though concrete, and as he tilts his head back for the two syllables of “a-live”, the word becomes what the lyric signifies: an act of survival, a desperate gasp for air above a sea of ennui and self-destruction. Produced by frequent Drake collaborator and dvsn member Nineteen85, the track combines vintage new wave and modern pop-R&B elements to arrive at a sound that is both timeless and distinctly of-the-moment. Its opening synthesizer may recall Steve Winwood’s hokey, early ’80s singles “While You See a Chance” and “Valerie”, but its core is closer to McMorrow’s cover of Winwood’s “Higher Love”. Both are performances that show the singer putting all his faith in love as a fountainhead of salvation. But there’s an important difference as in “Higher Love”, this faith is fleeing him; in “Rising Water”, it’s shaken but firmly there.
We Move teems with polished pop gems like this. “Seek Another” is a lithe R&B singalong that boasts one of McMorrow’s most soulful vocals to date. “I Lie Awake Every Night”, gridded across a slow-motion Motown shuffle, is an unabashed quiet storm jam that would have equal utility during a night spent alone or one with a lover pressed against you. These are both tracks that rely on simple pop-R&B structures, but that also require new contortions and splendors out of McMorrow’s voice. “Killer Whales” is the same way. Backed by a choir of his own wail reduplicated, McMorrow pushes his signature falsetto to new heights, transforming the track from a throwaway Sampha pastiche into a work of genuine soul-pop artistry.
While Post Tropical showcased McMorrow’s fondness for hip-hop’s rhythms and R&B’s sensual spaciousness, it didn’t represent a formal conversion into either one of these genres. We Move, by contrast, is a definitive step toward pop, but one that also demonstrates the Irish belter’s willingness to take risks and tear out of his sensitive-soul comfort zone. “Evil”, perhaps more than any other track on the record, evidences this willingness. Extravagant, melodically direct, and packed with a chorus that could fill multiple stadiums, it’s a massive song by an artist who made his name by peddling a carefully crafted minimalism. “If I’m evil / We’ll be going down,” he sings, summarizing the pop truism that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high the water rises, there’s always someone there to remind you that the surface is never that far away.