by Ben Mangum
City Music, the latest solo album from the cool handed former bassist of Woods, is a grouping of songs about exactly what the title suggests: the city. However, Morby doesn’t fixate on the commotion of the buzzing urban landscape. Instead, he zeroes in on the experience of being alone amongst many – a feeling familiar to anyone who’s ever uprooted from a small town and found themselves in a place like New York or LA.
The title track, “City Music,” may be the best that Morby has ever created. The song opens with 2 minutes of a lingering, rolling rifts that lure in the listener, then builds into an irresistible jam as Morby takes the audience “downtown”.
Next up is “Tin Can,” which juxtaposes the feeling of isolation inside a big city with the incessant need to make yourself known. “I am a prisoner here, but I don’t mind,” he bemoans. Similar to “City Music,” Morby steadily builds the song with slick guitar lines that force the listener to feel the nervous excitement of exploring a new surrounding.
The rest of the album oozes the sights and sounds of the big city with the incomparably cool delivery for which Morby is known. The title of the penultimate track, “Pearly Gates,” comes as a surprise. How did we go from crowded streets to Heaven? We quickly learn that Morby is inside an Upper West Side Cathedral describing yet another experience where he is alone amongst many. “Everyone’s taking pictures, but me I’m just lighting candles that held every name but mine.” Even the afterlife, filled with the promise of eternal satisfaction, is a place in which Morby feels utterly and incomprehensibly alone.
Despite its overall success, City Music is not without imperfection. Morby misses with his attempted nod to the Ramones on “1234”—a scattered disconnected song that feels out of place. On its own it is catchy and fun, but inside City Music “1234” strays from the central theme and message of the album. This may be a foreshadowing of where Morby is headed in future records. Perhaps livelier upbeat songs with a stronger stage presence will displace the dark tales we’ve become accustomed to hearing.
But the greatest accomplishment of City Music is the irresistible “jams” on many tracks which are sure to make Morby’s live performances even stronger than before. The structured chaos contributes to the central paradox of the album: that a city so filled with life and sound can belie a quiet loneliness that too often goes unspoken.