It is hard to imagine a more perfect word to describe the pandemic experience than “sundowner,” the title of Kevin Morby’s latest album. Defined as “one who feels increased melancholy during twilight hours,” Morby became acquainted with the term upon relocating to his hometown of Kansas City from Los Angeles a few years back when he and his partner Katie Crutchfield (of Waxahatchee) noticed a downward shift in mood as the sun would set each evening. In other words, the condition and much of the album named for it long predated this current global crisis. Yet here we are, in the thick of it, and Morby’s new collection of songs feels like a soulful tonic ideal for that particular window each evening, watching the sun take its final breath before nightfall and remembering that even when it feels like a construct, time is still very much passing by.
Maybe it is thanks to his new environment that Sundowner feels like Morby’s most grounded work to date. It is sonically spare, his vocals diffused, quiet, and focused, his guitar playing meditative. Sundowner also feels beautifully haunted by the past. Morby eulogizes musician friends who have passed away, like Richard Swift and Jessi Zazu (of Those Darlins), and adjusts to the new-old surroundings of the Midwestern setting he left as a teenager. There is a spirituality to Sundowner, like a billow of smoke from a sputtering fire pit, on its way to its next life somewhere in the atmosphere. We hear Morby connecting with this otherworldly being in a literal way on “Campfire,” a song with many lives of its own. It begins with a lilting guitar riff epitaph, then fades to a quiet, barely-there verse from Crutchfield set atop the sound of a crackling flame, and finishes as a driving torch song, riddled with a nervous energy. In it, Morby whispers and howls as though possessed by the profound impact these souls have had on him. This is Sundowner’s cornerstone.
Morby has a gift for delivering his words like a prophet on a mission greater than himself, often using repetition like he’s chanting a mantra. “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun” a love song about the need for closeness and companionship, becomes a plea for protection as he repeats “Please don’t run from me / please don’t run.” Album closer “Provisions” employs a similar style, with a play on the classic nursery rhyme “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.” But Sundowner, though aesthetically pared down, is rich with narrative. Morby weaves detailed stories through these songs, about his friendships, his anxiety, his nostalgia, his purpose. And nowhere is that demonstrated more exquisitely than in the title track. He sings, “See I like the sun, but I start to run / The moment that the sun runs from me / I am a sundowner / Please don’t let the sun go down on me.” It is a powerful and — perhaps unintentionally timely — testament to staying in place, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s lonely.