If anything helped us slog through 2020, it was music (followed closely by a collective effort of trying our hands at sourdough). With podcasts reserved for driving (something I currently do very little of), music was my only form left of listening media. 2020 birthed a surprising number of new albums from artists spanning from Fiona Apple to Run the Jewels. Among those releases was Kevin Morby’s Sundowner.
There’s a comfort in Kevin Morby’s voice, something akin to wrapping up in a warm blanket. The aptly named record comes from an artist I often turn to in the evening’s golden hour. His new album is a mild mover, a bit slower than his previous work, reflecting his time spent at home instead of his usual chaotic tour schedule. But if there were ever a year that required a little more gentleness, it was 2020.
Sundowner celebrates the Midwest, specifically chronicling Morby’s move from Los Angeles to his hometown of Kansas City, his own “anonymous and lonely oasis.” It’s about the memories of returning to your sleepy hometown and wondering where everyone has ended up. It’s a study on loss, change, and renewal.
Sundowner begins with “Valley,” a song with a decisive beat to carry us through. Morby employs low, tender vocal stylings mixed with a nasal upward twinge. The song establishes the same simple but carefully orchestrated structures I’ve come to love from his music. It ushers in themes of the desert and expansive Midwest landscapes that come through in the rest of the album. These themes especially shine in “Brother, Sister” - marked by American Western and Asian string influences with a storyline fit for an outlaw.
Unintentionally, the album became the de facto soundtrack for quarantine. The songs hold sentiments of isolation, listlessness, and death (“I feel so alone” / “The hours devour us” / “Where have all my friends gone?” / “I wonder as I wander” / “Jamie was a friend of mine, He was twenty-five when he died”). Morby wrote most of the album alone, tucked away in his shed that he’d outfitted as a makeshift recording studio. It was recorded in perhaps the single-most examples of a place that embodies the sparse, sweeping presence available in the record: Texas.
The title track carries the familiar pastiche of a classic Americana or folk ballad. Morby sings “I am a Sundowner” - a nod to the inspiration for the album (“sundowner” being a term for “one who feels increased melancholy during twilight hours”).
His partner (Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee) appears on the song “Campfire,” a beautiful two-parter in the middle of the album. Morby sings of the campfire that lives in his soul, a campfire he shares with Crutchfield and with the people he’s lost. A break in the song opens to Crutchfield’s golden voice over the backdrop of a crackling fire: “Lay your head on my pillow / There's a fire inside you, and that's why you billow / Stay calm, stay calm, and give me your palm / A song, a song for you.” He repeats: “Hey, who are you? I'm a sundowner too” followed by a swaying, hypnotizing composite of keyboard and guitar that lifts the song out.
“Wander” relies on the potent guitar and verve that invokes Morby’s punk days performing in Woods and The Babies. In the same way he speaks of passion and connectivity as a campfire, he also describes it as the blood triggering the beat of his heart on the highway. In this way, it speaks both to his passion and to the feeling of driving through a Midwest landscape. “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun” is at once a love song, a plea, and an embrace of Midwest American sun. Like much of his music, it holds influence from a Methodist upbringing through a secular lens (“God bless and pray for American waters and sons”). In a sexy drone delivered through talk-singing, “A Night At The Little Los Angeles” paints a portrait of a motel, from bleached hallways to the sound of lovers in a neighboring room (the “Little Los Angeles” being the nickname Morby coined for his home in Kansas).
Sundowner closes with “Provisions,” a thesis for gathering what you need for the long road ahead. For choosing how you want to live your life (“if you're good, then don't do it for free... don't just give it away... choose carefully” / “Are you inside the kingdom or just dead where you stand?”).
The comfort of Sundowner was much-needed medicine for last year, a guiding light through an otherwise bleak year. The lyrics are reassuring in their simplicity, but deceivingly so, usually with some other meaning in the shadows. The album brings us a little closer to his relationship with Crutchfield, especially made more tangible through their intimate livestreams together on Instagram and her appearances in his music videos. Sundowner is about the fleeting and ambitious nature of songwriting, a "depiction of the nervous feeling that comes with the sky’s proud announcement that another day will be soon coming to a close as the pink light recedes and the street lamps and house lights suddenly click on.”
While it’s not my favorite Kevin Morby album, it’s one that came at the right time. A record perpetually in sunset, it offers us peace, warmth, and lit candles in a darkening room. Burrowed in the confines of our own homes, the album reminds us that sense of place still exists. And, if only temporarily, we can depart into these songs until we venture out again in the morning of a post-pandemic life.