Kevin Morby has always been a channeler of the divine. The enigmatic singer/songwriter has won over audiences far and wide with the languor of his folk-tinged rock ’n’ roll, summoning angels, devils and saints in his lyrics while folding in the enchantment of folk tales, the grandiosity of nature and the benevolence of a love that can withstand everything from grazed knees to deep heartache. Morby’s latest album (2017’s City Music) was a near-concept record centered on the paradox of a bustling New York City landscape and lush bucolic expanses. His fifth solo album and first double LP, Oh My God (out on April 26 via Dead Oceans), sees Morby at his most intentionally conceptual—examining religion from a secular lens.
“I grew up in Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas City and they’re all pretty conservative places,” Morby says over the phone from his Kansas City residence. “While I didn’t grow up practicing any religion and there was never really a bible in the house or anything like that, it was still all around me. Out here, religion is this stark black-and-white issue and it’s very god-fearing. I grew up around a lot of billboards and church marquees that were ominous and very frightening. I grew up with that and the history of the Wild West everywhere you turned and those two things combined really set the foundation for me being interested in stories.”
First and foremost, Morby is a storyteller. Since his 2013 debut album, Harlem River, Morby has created evocative narratives from simple vernacular, though one wouldn’t deem his writing simplistic. There’s a discernable purity, but also an underlying wisdom. His music sparks nostalgia for whimsical children’s literature, but it’s also steeped in ubiquitous human truths one would seek out in any piece of art. Human truths are integral to any good religious allegory or Wild West caper—two narrative vehicles which inspire Morby. Revisit track one of his debut LP, “Miles, Miles, Miles,” and you’ll find both a romantic mountaintop journey and a “devil hung up on that cross.”
Oh My God stems from Morby’s 2016 track “Beautiful Strangers,” released for charity in the wake of several horrific shootings (the Bataclan terrorist attack, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the death of Freddie Gray, among them). The song’s third verse repeats the line “Oh my God, oh my Lord,” which became something of a mantra for his new LP.
“I knew it had a certain power to it,” Morby says. “And I knew it was a good song and I knew people would be able to take comfort in it, so I wanted to put it out as quickly as possible and make all the profits charitable and it would have the biggest impact if I released it that year. I didn’t feel comfortable putting it on the album because I wanted it to remain its own thing. It just sort of became this thread that was sewing all these different songs together that I was writing and I kind of noticed that I had an album that was beginning to form.”
The album’s majestic, piano-based title track is the first, but definitely not the last occurrence of the line, “Oh my god.” The wonky organ-laced “OMG Rock n Roll,” is the record’s bouncy rock reprise, which Morby explains as “basically a new version of ‘Beautiful Strangers.’” Like “Beautiful Strangers,” the song addresses senseless gun violence with a lyric referencing the number of casualties from shootings in Texas, Orlando and Las Vegas (“Flying over my head, 26, 49, 58 dead…If I die too young, If that gunman come”).
“It’s a horrifying, terrifying subject that I just want to be on the right side of history with trying to make better,” Morby says. “I vividly remember Columbine happening and I remember being so moved by it. It’s just been an issue that I’ve put a lot of thought into. There’s absolutely fate involved in it. Someone enters into a room with this automatic weapon and some people come out alive and some people don’t. It’s just this weird modern-day version of the grim reaper who just comes and they have this thing that’s just too powerful. No one should have that sort of power in their hands.”
Oh My God came out of a certain sense of desperation and a period of personal and shared turmoil. Back in 2016 when many of these tracks were composed, Morby was going through a breakup, Trump was elected President, a series of mass shootings in America had sunk everyone’s spirits, and to top it all off, Morby was living in Los Angeles, where massive wildfires were raging.
“It felt like I was living in hell and for the first time in my life, I felt like the world was coming to an end,” Morby says. “I felt panicky all the time. When stuff like that begins to happen, I feel like your thought process just naturally goes to, ‘Well if I do die, then that’s fine.’ You start thinking about things outside of the world, outside of being too self-centered. People die all the time, why should I be…no one’s guaranteed a tomorrow. That fear and that hope and that acceptance with all of it. That’s really what I’m trying to convey with the record.”
One form of consolation people turn to when the weight of the world begins to slowly crush the human psyche is religion. Morby doesn’t subscribe to any particular organized religion, but he finds endless beauty in its capacity to move people. “I think the stories that come with it or people’s personal experiences with them, I find a lot of it very endearing and I just think it’s beautiful,” Morby says. “It’s just interesting that there’s this thing that everyone has a relationship to it, whether they know it or not.”
He finds endless inspiration in its language, imagery and art, referencing larger than life religious figures as symbolic inhabitants of his album’s smoky lyrical embers—they spark with great awe and purpose before returning to the motherly arms of the universe overhead. Morby is drawn to religion’s possibilities and sheer magnitude, and a recent trip to Portugal peaked his interest in a particular religious figure.
“I was buying this really heavy painting that was done on a bunch of tiles. It’s of [Our Lady of Fátima]. When I was buying it, the woman selling it to me was really interested like, ‘Why would an American want this? You don’t seem like a religious Portuguese person. And I was telling her I just thought it was a nice painting and it interested me. And she was telling me the backstory. These [three children shepherds], the [Virgin Mary] came to them and then they went and told everyone they had seen [her] and then they became prophets. And it’s just funny, it’s almost like in her explaining it to me, it’s like, ‘Why wouldn’t I be interested in this?’”
There’s a tranquility to all of Morby’s music that tears a hole in time and space and heightens the senses. But Oh My God feels especially calming thanks to an album largely centered on keys and horns, instead of the winsome electric guitars of its predecessor. The title track’s pitter-pattering piano, soothing choir vocals and rich saxophone solo mimic the humbling and grand yet heart-fluttering experience of being suspended in an airplane, trapped in the ether. Mary Lattimore’s bewitching harp on “Piss River” paired with Morby’s soul-stirring sentiments (“Do you want to play chess, inside my chest / You move I move, you choose I choose”), delivered in a pacifying speak-sing are like a restorative, dreamy doze. The cascading piano intro and the slow, alluring saxophone on “Ballad of Faye” are life preservers masquerading as musical passages, and Meg Duffy’s (Hand Habits) ripping guitar solo on “Seven Devils” is an incorporeal hug from the cosmos.
Oh My God pours with a deep appreciation for nature, which also contributes to an earthy spirituality. On “Nothing Sacred / All Things Wild” and alongside meditative congas, Morby serenades the planet’s green and brown textures (“Bitter garden, bitter leaf / Bitter earth, bitter seed”). Several other cuts possess a reverence towards Earth’s natural flow and surrender to its powerful forces, too—“Storm (Beneath the Weather)” is a literal field recording of a storm.
“Having grown up in the Midwest, the storms are such a big part of my life,” Morby says. “My girlfriend who’s from the South, she was saying, ‘The storms in the South are bad, but in the Midwest, they’re biblical’ and that’s really true. You see these huge big black clouds come in and overtake the planes and having grown up around tornados, just this thing that sucks you up in the sky. Ever since I was a little kid, I always had this thought of, if you’ve existed in the Dust Bowl, before science, you would have to think that’s god.”
When Kevin Morby writes, he thinks about how a song will exist in the universe. While Oh My God is technically in the universe, it’s not of it. Morby is one of modern rock ’n’ roll’s finest raconteurs, and his bold new concept album now belongs to the universe in a time when brushes with the divine seem fewer and farther between.
Oh My God is out on April 26 via Dead Oceans