Kansas City-based seeker and singer/songwriter Kevin Morby, quietly quite prolific with six solo albums to his name, has long been concerned with heaven, earth and the intersection of the two—life and its limits. “Oh, I am on a ride / Measure the distance in time / And as sure as I was born / I will die,” he sang on the final track from his 2013 solo debut Harlem River, making peace with mortality over humble acoustic strums and mournful pedal steel. On his latest record Sundowner, Morby continues to contemplate the weight of existence, taking stock of the bleak and beautiful alike. He does so by moving from the sweeping spirituality of his previous album, 2019’s acclaimed Oh My God, to a far more specific location: Middle America, the familiar mystery at the center of a singular country. Written and demoed on a Tascam four-track in a shed in Morby’s Kansas City backyard, and recorded with producer Brad Cook in Tornillo, Texas (“We wanted to make sure the record was done far away from any coastline, and in the heart of America,” Morby explains in a letter accompanying the album), Sundowner is a warm and wistful collection that consistently captures the bittersweet feeling of a sunset: The sight is lovely, but fleeting, light’s glorious last gasp before it gives way to the darkness.
That feeling serves as Morby’s guiding light throughout the album, from its gentlest lows to its heartiest highs. He wisely opens Sundowner with one of the latter: “Valley” is pastoral and inviting, parlaying acoustic chords and a soft organ hum (Morby identifies his “WWII-era collapsible and slightly out-of-tune pump organ” as “the album’s secret weapon”) into a grand backdrop befitting its titular landform. Meanwhile, Morby’s lyrics establish his focus, encompassing the world around him as well as whatever lies beyond: “In the valley below / They all pretend not to know us,” he croons, later concluding, “Mama, all the stars are broken / For either me or you or us,” and leaving us to wonder which while his lead guitar ambles onward, gaining momentum and multiplying as it goes. The title track employs the album’s go-to stripped-down mixture of acoustic fingerpicking and quiet keys, with Morby zeroing in on “the moment that the sun runs from me”—a knife’s edge of emotion, as the time signalling that a sundowner will soon be at their saddest—and pleading, “Please / Don’t let the sun go down on me,” recontextualizing a classic rock line.
As much as watching the sun sink low is an arc which happiness turns to its opposite, there’s also something inherently isolating about the sight. Our star could fit one million Earths inside it—“insignificant” does not begin to describe our experiences in comparison to the cosmos, yet we are, as far as we know, the only intelligent life in it. Morby leans into this loneliness: The voyeuristic tale of “A Night at the Little Los Angeles,” named for his Kansas City home (which, in turn, was named for its decorative homages to his previous homebase of L.A.), observes the many small stories unfolding around its narrator, who is alone, save for the female backing vocals that join Morby in the choruses. The song’s setting alternates between being mundane and dreamlike, with the hotel’s “paper walls” and “hallways [that] smell just like bleach” contrasting with the “sugar instead of sand / on the beaches beneath our feet,” but Morby’s hushed vocals and the tapped percussion lend the song a sense of seclusion. Sundowner’s most lonesome stretches also include penultimate instrumental “Velvet Highway” and the drum machine-accented “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun,” on which Morby implores, “Don’t go / don’t go, please.”
There is no feeling lonelier than grief, to which all too many Americans can attest of late. But even at its darkest, Sundowner depicts death not as an end to existence, but rather as a transformation. Morby pays tribute to the late Jessi Zazu, Richard Swift and Anthony Bourdain on “Campfire,” as well as his “best friend and forever muse” Jamie Ewing on “Jamie.” On the Katie Crutchfield-assisted “Campfire,” over tumbling riffs and distant organ, Morby insists of Zazu, “There’s a campfire inside her soul / Still billows,” adding of the others in the song’s latter half, “They billow, they billow.” Even in death, their souls flicker and dance like flames, radiating a glow we can still see and feel. With “Jamie,” meanwhile, Morby opts less for timeless metaphors and more for a rock ‘n’ roll folktale, singing of his fallen friend, “And when he died, they sent his spirit to the sky / Then he came back down with a piano in his mouth.” At its core, though, the song is Sundowner’s most open-hearted and intimate, comprising only Morby’s voice and sparse instrumentation. “I wish my friend was still alive,” he sings.
Indeed, despite its metaphysical optimism, Sundowner resonates not because it has the answers, but because it proves willing to hunt for them or, in their apparent absence, to create them. Take the sub-two-minute “Wander,” a Tom Petty-esque rocker that throttles the album back up after the somber conclusion of “Campfire,” with Morby keeping his eyes on the highway and vocalizing along to a kick-drum heartbeat until the song abruptly cuts off. “Brother, Sister,” too, finds the singer/songwriter marching onward, peopling his isolation via the perspective of siblings separable by neither time nor space (“Oh brother, they killed you dead / I know sister, now I live in your head / Oh brother, but they put you in a hole / Just my body sister, they never touched my soul”). And with “Provisions,” Morby’s musicality is as inextricable from his being as anything else: “My heart’s the guitar, and my mouth the piano / I have many teeth in many different keys.” Sundowner’s power lies in its aperture, taking in all it can of the earth beneath us and the skies above, and transcending life’s mixed emotions with the imaginative force of its Middle-American mythmaking.
Scott Russell is an associate music editor at Paste and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.