Kevin Morby Speaks in the Tongues of His Forebears on 'Oh My God'
Kevin Morby's Oh My God is a stunning high-wire act of high-concept and deep-rooted rock and roll at the same time.
Oh My God
26 April 2019
Kevin Morby's epic new album (his fifth, remarkably) is, by his own admission (if not confession) a "non-religious religious record". It is a frankly dizzying experience that takes no little unpacking. Oh My God is an album of seeking and discovering, of affirming and negating, loss and redemption, of musical and spiritual exploration, tribute and invention, and often of running to stand still in an act of extended meditation. For all these reasons it is quite fascinating and at the same time utterly exhausting. The album's massive ambition, which announces itself immediately, continues unabated until the dying fall about 50 minutes later. This ambition is both exhilarating and enervating and not everything works, but it is impossible not to admire the scale of the project, and when it does come off it can be quite spectacular.
Morby's work here (as he has also acknowledged) is undoubtedly a concept album, perhaps even a high-concept album, dealing with the grandest of concepts, namely faith and its accompanying doubt. Morby himself is no stranger to the concept of the concept album - Harlem River (2013) and City Music (2017) are urban paeans, while Still Life (2014) seems paradoxically to sing the body in motion - but this particular offering seems to take the project to a new level of ambition. The notion of the concept album is almost always already pre-emptively overdetermined and may perhaps not be able to withstand the weight of its own imaginings, its references, its allusions, its significance (even its own self-importance, one might think, rather uncharitably, in some of its more inglorious moments). The concept album sets itself a high bar and quite regularly fails to clear it. So how does Kevin Morby fare as he navigates this potentially treacherous territory?
We might need some moral support on our journey, and we might do worse than to consult T.S. Eliot, who wrote plenty of "non-religious religious" lines of arcane modernist poetry before he found his own way to a version of divinity later in life. Consider this passage from Murder in the Cathedral, his 1935 verse drama about the demise of turbulent priest Thomas Becket:
"Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait.
And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen:
I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmen."
Oh My God itself seems to open in the very same shaft of sunlight Eliot describes not only here but also in the related "Burnt Norton", written as part of what would become his majestic late work, Four Quartets:
"Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always –
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after."
The opening and title track of Oh My God begins with some notes picked out on what sounds like an ancient piano being broadcast to us from long ago and far away. The song is perhaps conjuring a wrinkle in time, opening a narrow doorway onto a chink of light that suggests, in turn, a distant time and place when faith was more universally professed and practiced, but no less problematic, tortured and ambiguous (or ambivalently approached) than it is now.
The poet's spiritual journey was nothing if not complicated and contradictory. T.S. Eliot the young skeptic turned ardent believer; the despairing midlife cynic became a late-life devotee and supplicant. This was after all the precocious young fence sitter riddled with indecision in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", who subsequently found nothing but fragments shored against his ruins in the post-World War One trauma and detritus of "The Waste Land". Yet Eliot somehow miraculously found his way to God, albeit an arid and shriveled deity, in the rich and opaque lines of "Ash Wednesday" and "The Four Quartets" in the 1930s and 1940s, as the world seemed to be lurching inevitably toward yet more catastrophe and devastation. If any of that sounds familiar, it should. As such, all of these extended references to and meditations on Eliot might set such an epic musical project in some relief.
All of this is not an attempt to align Morby too closely with Eliot's high modernism or indeed the ornate ceremonies of the high church (there is no sense here that Morby is presenting us with any kind of conversion narrative here, for example), but the parallels seem instructive, as do parallels with other entirely more relatable artists, as we shall see. Morby's meditations on God, faith, religion, and spirituality become something of a mantra whose "Om" (cf. the "Shanti Shanti Shanti" that closes Eliot's The Waste Land in such mystical and mystifying affirmation) literally happens to be "Oh my God".
From the opening piano notes, we revisit that titular phrase as a recurring incantation multiple times and in multiple musical settings through the course of the album experience. The sedate lullaby of the title track morphs a little later into the rollicking strut of "OMG Rock and Roll", as if the ghostly lovechild of Marc Bolan and Lou Reed has suddenly been introduced into the proceedings (to cast these spirits loose among the runes of Eliot seems both sacrilegious and delicious at the same time). "OMG Rock and Roll" might be the single most dynamic performance of the album, and yet Morby is able to wring yet more mileage out of the trope when it recurs for yet a third time on the attack of "Piss River", which feels like the album's centerpiece, although it faces stiff competition among many standout moments.
Yet while there are many moments of spiritual affirmation here, there are also perhaps equal amounts of doubt and negation, as evidenced in "No Halo" and "Nothing Sacred/All Things Wild", and this dissolution introduces another set of influences beyond the purely literary. Indeed it is hard to ignore what is right in front you here in terms of musical antecedents like the Trinity, holy or otherwise, of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison (the musical equivalent for our purposes of the Masters of Suspicion, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche), both in terms of their investigations of faith and doubt and in terms of their respective vocal timbres and musical arrangements.
It feels like Morby must be at least aware of this, if not fully attempting to emulate or comment on the giant shadows cast by these forebears. He has clearly consorted with these spirits previously, as is obvious from even a cursory listen to his earlier work – "Wild Side (Oh the Places You'll Go" from his first album Harlem River, is a genius mashup of Dylan and Reed, for example). That feels particularly true on a song like "Nothing Is Sacred/All Things Wild", which seems to recall Cohen most vividly of all Morby's musical spirits, all while rather miraculously maintaining its own authenticity and originality. Similarly, "Hail Mary" seems to recall peak Dylan and the Band, while also not losing the essence of Morby himself, and some of the musical interludes, including the later song, "Ballad of Faye" surely recall peak-mid-period Van Morrison from that purple passage of classic albums from the 1980s.
But to speak of all these influences, echoes, resonances and reminders, as we have done rather obsessively, is also to note that Morby isn't just offering a pastiche of or tribute to Dylan, Cohen, and Morrison (among others) on a musical level. Morby also seems to be emulating their respectively complex attitudes to and expressions of spirituality, alternating between spitting skepticism and joyous choral embrace, much as all of those founding fathers did at one point or another. Morby seems to be acutely aware of the tradition in which he is working, while also forging new paths for himself. In this way, he does not become a mere peddler of influence and nostalgia but instead manages to establish all sort of connections to multiple cultural precedents.
How he keeps all of these plates spinning at once is a mystery and a marvel, and he does this, mind you, while kicking out all sorts of jams. The sonorous piano of "Seven Devils" gives way to some blistering guitar. The aforementioned "OMG Rock and Roll", "Hail Mary", and "Piss River" likewise lurch along in the most ramshackle hootenanny imaginable. This album is not short of boisterous good times, so if you don't want to take the Morby course in spiritual exploration (there is no proselytizing here, just in case you were wondering) you can certainly feel free to tap into the more visceral elements of the experience. It is therefore perfectly possible to inhale this experience completely joyously, without once giving a thought to any part of the so-called concept, merely existing purely in this contemporary moment, thereby achieving the very mindfulness that the album may have intended for us all along.
And, speaking of the present moment, just as he is aware of his musical and cultural past, Morby cannot also be unaware of his place in a more contemporary triumvirate that includes MC Taylor's Hiss Golden Messenger and Matthew Houck's Phosphorescent, all of whose recent work seems to resonate here quite vividly. These artists seem to be kindred spirits, and this recognition also makes us realize that we do not constantly have to be looking backward for our inspiration, that we can look to our peers and contemporaries as well. Furthermore, the fact that there are multiple trinities at work here puts your head on a total swivel, so you might now start to understand the cautionary notes offered at the outset about how tiring this experience can be.
And it is indeed rather exhausting. The album barely pauses for breath until we get to "Savannah", and that pause doesn't last long as we ricochet almost immediately to the raucous shenanigans of "Congratulations". This passage is part of what might seem a rather odd sequence from "Savannah" to "Storm (Beneath the Weather)" to "Congratulations" and then still further onward, with an elemental ambiance transitioning into some children's dialogue followed by some rather grand horn and keyboard-driven bombast, a searing guitar solo and the incanted "Dear God, please forgive me." And then it just stops, strangely. But upon reflection, this set of songs from the latter part of the album seems to mark a shift as well as punctuation, both of which are much needed after the frenetic sequence that was the first seven songs. There is relatively little filler here, but after all the excitement it almost feels like we need some periods of less consequence and concentration in order to gather ourselves for the home turn.
That final turn is also a return to the Dylanesque finery of "I Want to Be Clean", "Sing a Glad Song", and "Oh Behold", punctuated by "Ballad of Faye". That we end with this suite of immaculate Zimmerman pastiche replete with echoes of Morrison, and a final flourish toward Leonard Cohen's backing singers in the last moments ties a beautiful bow on the whole experience. The notion of a concept album in 2019 might seem counter-intuitive, and the notion of a concept album about notions of "God" might seem still more belated, and yet this experience feels completely timely and on point, all while it constantly has one foot in all of its past lives and incarnations.
In its own way, this is a genuinely miraculous achievement, in that it can stand alone without any of the foregoing contexts, but when linked to its sense of cultural historicity it takes on a life that is exponentially larger in scale. And while Morby's earlier concepts might have seemed somewhat looser and more liberated from the self-imposed constraints of such a project, Oh My God also feels like the apotheosis of his multivalent approach to the construction of music and myth. He is truly at the top of his game, and one can only stand in awe of this accomplishment.