Kansas City-native Kevin Morby (Woods/The Babies) calls his debut album “an homage to New York City,” where he’s lived for the past five years — and it’s hard not to take that as somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek statement. It’s largely a rather bleak homage, thanks to the soberingly remorseful pieces therein, such as “Sucker in the Void” and “The Dead They Don’t Come Back.” Then, of course, there’s the more overt reference to the city by way of title-track “Harlem River,” and opener “Miles, Miles, Miles,” on which Morby notes “If they knew how far I traveled in the dark/then I wouldn’t seem so odd/Then they wouldn’t stop to stare.” One thing is instantly clear: were Morby a fish, NYC is not within water. However, as the record plays on, his bold complacency insists that he’s in it for the long haul all the same.
Morby’s voice and inflections seem to imitate those of Bob Dylan. Of course, these are some pretty lofty shoes to fill, and were he to shoot for emulation of Bob Dylan — that quintessential inhabitant of the very first thought many associate with folk rock — Harlem River would seem tawdry. Yet every time Morby reaches above a whisper, you hear a faint kinship with Dylan, as though he were acting as a spirit guide of sorts for Morby. This is especially apparent on peppier songs like the pop-friendly “Wild Side (Oh the PLaces You’ll Go)” and the finger-plucked “If You Leave and If You Marry.”
Harlem River sees Morby’s melancholic discomforts through a refreshingly soft lens. Be it the extended jazz form and elevated whispers of “Harlem River;” the Nick Drake-reminiscent, finger-plucked serenity of “If You Leave and If You Marry;” and even the slightly more audacious “Reign” and its classic rockabilly one-and-two-three guitar line a la “Johnny B. Goode”—each track tackles its own inherent vices and anxieties with a rather stoic serenity.
Even the gloomy, brooding waltz of “Sucker in the Void,” on which Morby frequently repeats the title line, allaying “no future no past” and “there ain’t no going back/I’m on my own.” The chorus compounds on that feeling of no return, driving home there’s “no one now to be found.” Easily the album’s darkest track, the quiet 3|4 ambiance is equal parts haunting and soothing. It’s all too reasonable to assume that, lyrically, these admissions of loneliness are a point of darkness for Morby, yet the lack of tension in the musicianship belays a sure-footed comfort in that loneliness. Such is the inherent paradox of Morby’s serene-yet-brooding debut—it acknowledges the inherent difficulties of life in the big city, if only for the sake enforcing his own stern resolution against leaving it.