Cities can feel so important if you have a sense of wonder. A visitor's awe can get mixed up with a conviction of some divine reason why this place exists, and a feeling that somehow you are a part of that reason. Kevin Morby, a singer and songwriter formerly of the New York folk-rock act Woods, has this wonder about cities. His fourth solo album, City Music, orbits around the concept of flâneurism — strolling for the sake of strolling, wandering through city streets with a sense of unarticulated purpose. It’s a sweet way to see the world, but one that also leaves the windows open for lonesome breezes to waft in.
Morby is particularly interested in the loneliness in city life. The cities on this album aren’t sites for contentment as much as areas defined by a romanticized seeking and longing. “Aboard My Train” is the buoyant thesis, delivered through a character who comes across like an elder full of stories, reflecting on a breathless biography of lives lived and loves left behind (“I once loved a boy so smart and true”). “All of them are aboard my train / All of them are a friend of mine / And oh my darling, can’t you see? / Oh that they, and you, are a part of me,” Morby sings. It's a strong addition to the canon of songs about the life of a perennial road dog, looking for meaning in all of the coming and going.
The promotional posters for City Music read, “This album is dedicated to London, New York, Paris, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Berlin, Amsterdam, Porto, Kyoto, Kansas City, Gothenburg and all the other beautiful cities of the world.” New York, Los Angeles, and Kansas City are highlighted, name-checking Morby's two adopted cities and his original hometown. I make note of Kansas City — a place with its own mythologies, obscured a little bit by broader Midwestern stories, in part because it is such a distinctly middle zone, its geography so literally centered in the country. Morby hints that his Kansas City background gives him the ability to look out in all directions and be charmed by each glance he takes. His tone is less weary, more enchanted.
Album opener "Come to Me Now" finds Morby slinking in on a languid love song full of echoing pump organ. The mood is that zapped energy of dusk in New York after being out all day, or that Los Angeles fatigue of hot smog and dusty air. In a tonal shift, he follows with a rocker, "Crybaby," muttering, “I never was someone that I liked / I never was someone that you know.” He casts himself as an outsider, a guy kicking rocks near train tracks on the edge of town, but you can hear that he's still seeking a sense of belonging.
Later, as the title track unfurls with a metronomic beat, it feels like entering a city on the highway. It has that mounting thrill of arrival, the most charming part of the rambling-man trope. Maybe Morby’s soulful locus in the center of things is what makes his songs so light and sweeping; he makes the middle sound like a softer angle to gaze from.
Morby performs live in his own Nudie-style suit, with rhinestones on the tail of the jacket spelling CITY MUSIC. He's wearing it on the album cover, too, gazing into a mirror in a stance that evokes Patti Smith’s Horses. On the punky “1234,” he chants, “Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy,” until the song rips to an end: “They were all my friends, and they died.” In the album notes, Morby writes, “Here, Lou Reed and Patti Smith stare out at the listener. Stretched out on a living room floor they are somewhere in mid-70s Manhattan, also smoking cigarettes.” It all feels like an endearing grown-man equivalent of building a teenage bedroom shrine of cultural trinkets, crafting a sense of place for himself.
Cities are easy muses, with their complexities already wrapped up in clichés about energy, danger, and vibrance. But Morby pulls just a tiny bit at the thread of what’s obvious to give these familiar ideas some tension, without unraveling their sentimentality. "Downtown’s Lights," the closing track, sounds like an after-hours response to the call — “Oh how you're pulling my heartstrings / Oh, let’s go downtown” — heard earlier on the title track. Those heartstrings go slack at the end of the night. The lit-up city is at once a warm light and an illumination of all the lonely spaces inside it, and City Music is a lovely enough soundtrack to feeling it all.