Kevin Morby: Oh My God

Music Reviews Kevin Morby
Kevin Morby: Oh My God

Consider the non-Christian Christian rock song. Its history extends back at least half a century: In 1969, a Jew named Lou crooned about Jesus on the Velvet Underground’s third and lovelist album. (Lou Reed was not religious—Jewish by birth, he liked telling interviewers his god was rock’n’roll.) Two decades later, the pre-fame Flaming Lips submerged Jesus imagery in glass-shattering feedback on an album whose title, In a Priest Driven Ambulance, conveys its obsession with organized religion. (Wayne Coyne is not religious. “We weren’t expressing a belief in Jesus or God, or any higher power,” Coyne later explained. “We were expressing a belief in… believing.”)

These rock ‘n roll Jesus anthems succeed because they are absorbed with all the aesthetic genius of biblical imagery and none of the intolerable dullness of proselytizing. Other standout examples include Spacemen 3’s “Walking with Jesus,” Modest Mouse’s “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child,” and the collected works of Mr. I-Don’t-Believe-in-an-Interventionist-God, Nick Cave. (Cave is not religious. But as an artist, “it’s a necessary part of what I do,” the man once told a Los Angeles Times reporter.)

Notice a pattern here? Kevin Morby is not religious either. Yet by his own admission, he has made a “non-religious religious record.” Oh My God, the dizzying and fantastic fifth album from the increasingly prolific folk-rocker, is preoccupied with the language of exaltation, from its gospel-choir refrains to its outrageous album cover, which depicts Morby, shirtless, posing beneath a famous painting of Saint Cecilia playing piano for the angels. Somehow, none of this scans as ironic or overtly hokey: When Morby sings lines like “Dear God, please forgive me” three times with a children’s choir accompanying him on “Congratulations”—and then caps that off with a searing guitar solo worthy of a Springsteen climax—it’s hard to believe he is a nonbeliever.

He is, though. Morby grew up in Kansas City, surrounded, yet unmoved, by visions of doom on evangelical billboards. Presumably, he is acquainted with the narrow-minded hatred religion can provoke. But as an adult, the songwriter noticed a spiritual thread running through his work and decided to feed it, give it room to grow—to “speak only that language for a whole record,” as he notes in accompanying press materials. It is not a language of fire and brimstone; nor does this album play like a spiritual crisis. Oh My God draws intensity, purpose, and even thunderous joy from its divine preoccupations.

There are rich variations in mood. On the opening “Oh My God,” the singer’s prayerful refrain (“Oh my lord / Come carry me home”) is a quiet, solitary plea that rises out of a rickety piano melody that sounds as if it’s emanating from your grandparents’ attic. Three songs later (“OMG Rock n Roll”), it’s a rollicking doomsday anthem, all bleating organs and grimy guitar fuzz as Morby combines the same lyrics with the ambient anxieties of the mass shooting age. And six songs after that, the singer is awed at the simple daily fact of being alive: “This life is a killer! / But oh, what a ride! / Just to wake up each morning! / Just to open your eyes!” goes the messy celebratory shuffle of “Congratulations.” Oh My God is full of lines that teeter on the brink of hippie-dippie inanity, and sometimes they cross over, but Morby delivers them with enough conviction and musical restlessness to make you rise from your couch and join him in wondering where the hell a baby bluebird goes when it dies. (That query arises on “O Behold,” the album’s rousing closer, which is lovely even before a gospel choir emerges and starts Oooh-ing and Aaah-ing everywhere as Morby tells his loved ones he loves them just in case the plane burns.)

Morby’s previous work, particularly the back-to-back Singing Saw (2016) and City Music (2017), has been frequently compared to the singer-songwriter greats of the 1970s, notably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Oh My God has a ramshackle energy to it, as well as a distinctly vintage instrumental ambience, that’s likely to encourage such comparisons. The pianos crackle; the organs rumble and groan (see: “Nothing Sacred / All Things Wild”); everything has that fuzzy analog glow. There are saxophones and flutes deployed sans shame. And “Piss River,” which is about death not urination, even has a recurring cadence directly reminiscent of the “oh, mama” part in Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” (Speaking of Dylan, this record is a double album, which seems to be a function of ambition more than length—bewilderingly, it is not even 50 minutes long.)

Oh My God also has a certain unabashed exuberance that’s uncommon in circa-2019 indie-rock. You can hear it in the church-choir backing vocals, in how Morby shouts “Oh! My! God!” throughout “Piss River,” pausing to let each syllable hang in the air. It’s in the record’s willingness to go big and embarrass itself, which is does when it incorporates the voices of children asking God for forgiveness in “Congratulations.”

Some records demand to be heard with headphones. Oh My God is not one of them. I first heard the album shortly after being laid off from a newsroom job, which meant Morby’s music was ringing out loudly in my empty apartment instead of piping into my headphones on an overcrowded subway. This seemed to suit its messy, god-obsessed exuberance: Let it ring out wherever you can. If any actual believers were within earshot—well, that’s fine too.

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