James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical

8.5/10

It’s been almost four years since James Vincent McMorrow’s debut record, Early In The Morning, which despite never receiving the commercial reception it was most definitely due, was fawned over by critics and panels charmed by the delicacy of his nu-folk. Tracks like ‘Higher Love’ (a Steve Winwood cover) broke the Top 40, paving the way for the likes of Ben Howard, and his weapons of choice were classically folk – slide guitars, piano, acoustic string instruments in multiple shapes and sizes. It seemed like he’d take the Radio 1 route and polish up his music, don a dapper tweed suit/flatcap and go work in Clover’s in-house advert music workshop. But, partly due to some sour times with Universal and London in general, he didn’t.

In the time since Dublin native McMorrow released that first LP, he’s given up the sauce, relying on organic adrenaline rushes onstage to keep him intoxicated. He isolated himself deep in Texas (“On a pecan farm half a mile from the Mexican border,”) to record a new album alone and emerged a changed man; more confident in his own abilities and ideas.

He’s now plonked precariously above the Sarlacc pit of 21st century technology. Many onlookers have drawn lines between McMorrow’s upcoming release – entitled Post Tropical – and Bon Iver’s second record and Mercury winner James Blake (in general) – indeed, laptops and other atypical folk hallmarks, feature heavily on his eagerly anticipated sophomore full-length. Like the prodigal son returning, it’s been a long time coming – and he’s certainly not the same McMorrow we had in 2010. It’s purportedly inspired by old school hip-hop, there’s electronica flowing in torrents, post-rock, scandi-pop and R&B feature heavily – it would be a stretch to call this folk in any way, shape or form.

Opener “Cavalier” rings out over urban decay rather than bucolic landscapes. There’s ’70s soul keys and a cracking (in both senses of the word) falsetto draped over the top. It’s an elegiac mountain, climbing from soft foothills to ssteeper emotional precipices until McMorrow ascends to the summit: brass, chanted harmonies, post-rock percussion and truly outstanding high notes in tow. The opening to “The Lakes” is created from twelve mandolin layers and supposed to sound like a waterfall, which it kinda does. Again, there’s a soulful, almost gospel-ly timbre to the music and magnificent climaxes. It’s a pattern that crops up pretty regularly on the album, but it’s done in such a way that his structures don’t feel repetitive or reductive; it’s more like the ebb of the tide. The music grows and shrinks over Post Tropical‘s course in a very natural way, and even though there’s an abundance of synthetic streaks, it always feels like a living, breathing beast as opposed to a nickel-plated automaton.

Highlights are too frequent to count: “Glacier” is a chest-quaking sliver of balladry, featuring McMorrow’s voice barely above a whisper nestled between hummed backing vocals and handclaps. “I wanna go south of the river, face it alone in the heart of the winter,” he sings with a tone somewhere at the junction between pained yearning and hopeful triumph. “Gold” dawns with fanfare and illustrious harp-flavoured noises. There’s a lilting pace, imposed by what sounds like castanets, which relaxes the entire cut. However, the majesty disproportionately arrives in the form of the squirming, interweaving brass and sprawling layers of atmospheric synths. In a word, it’s epic. And not in the “cool dude that’s mad whack super epic bro” (kids still talk like that right?) type way either.

Post Tropical has lots of vivid imagery, much drawn from the great outdoors, but throughout the LP’s duration, there’s always a strident theme of strength. It’s grand and uplifting at moments, fragile and severe at others, but it’s always as if McMorrow’s giving you a gentle nudge and saying “kid, you done good.” Assuming that’s the sort of thing he’d say, of course. It’s empowering in subtle ways and life-affirming in ebullient ones, and a massive lunge in the right direction.