Singing Saw is a breakthrough record for Kevin Morby, brimming with vibrant imagery and fluid orchestration.
Kevin Morby's records have always blurred the line between his imagination and real life. Harlem River (2013) was a song-cycle describing experiences from his past life in New York, having moved to Los Angeles. Still Life (2014) widened its focus on a more abstract set of characters drawn from his new life. While experimenting more and more in the studio and fine-tuning his powers of storytelling, he still kept one foot on the ground. He was always, to a certain degree, a songwriter with a guitar, recounting stories of growth and change. “I am trying to make peace with where I am,” he sang on “Bloodsucker” (Still Life).
On his latest album, Singing Saw, Morby’s feet have temporarily left the ground altogether in a thrilling display. Somehow, in the short span of 18 months between albums, Kevin Morby has built a world that feels suspended above the “where I am” of Still Life, a world he never touches foot down in over the course of the record, lest he be startled awake.
Singing Saw deals heavily in images: mountains, being climbed or receding in the distance, as well as moons, coyotes, and the ever-recurring “singing saw”. His perspective slips readily into a Dali-like, cartoonish scape of images and characters that stand in for the serious, earthly things: the “Songbook” (music career), “The Destroyer” (death), the “Singing Saw” (mystery). On the track “Singing Saw”, instead of talking about writing a song, Morby “cuts down the old song tree”, which, as we learn on “Black Flowers”, is part of a “song book [he is] writing on a mountain”. There is something childlike about his imagery, which is maintained in his nursery-rhyme-like motifs and sing-songy repetition, like the line, “I can hear the schoolyard singing” in the ode to a buzz, “Drunk and on a Star”.
The overall effect is dazzling. It’s like a musical version of “Where The Wild Things Are”, starring a hard-working songwriter. As in Sendak, there is plenty of fright lurking beneath the surface: “Black Flowers” and “Ferris Wheel” are stories of domestic disputes (“in the garden where we built a home / black flowers”). Others are inspired by weighty subject material, like the murder of Eric Garner in the case of “I Have Been To The Mountain”.
The depth of layers that exist beneath Morby’s imagery is the mark of a matured lyrical style. Like Leonard Cohen, he relies on concrete sensory details to reveal inner life, rather than delivering it a platter, a difficult feat for a songwriter to so consistently pull off.
The music, orchestrated with producer and guitarist Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine, Yellowbirds) and played by the likes of the virtuosic Marco Benevento, is equally subtle and layered. What are otherwise constitutionally-”normal” arrangements -- by Morby’s former standards (thumpy bass, drums, guitar, piano, voice, plus the odd horn, string or choir) -- feel shaken up, blown apart and recombined to bigger effect. The players’ parts are both relaxed and detailed, balancing well fluidity with constitution. Guitar solos avoid an obvious arc. Up-front bass grooves are stretched out, smoothing over obvious song-structure markers. In the event an important leitmotif rears its head (“I could hear that piano play...’), all players freely yield.
In the end, it’s hard to tell which element most makes Singing Saw seem like a great album, each element working in such splendid tandem. Singing Saw is the sound of affirmation, of both hard-earned talent and childlike imagination. As a result, Morby has discovered a sound which is organic without ever quoting, rocking without ever rolling at the same time, transcending while barely leaving the ground.