A few years ago, Kevin Morby bought a house. It didn't come out of nowhere. Deerhunter's Bradford Cox had handed down some wisdom he'd received from Kim Gordon: the best thing a working musician could do for themselves was own a home. So Morby left Los Angeles and headed back to his hometown of Kansas City, where he'd found a place on the outskirts of town with a shed in the backyard, which he quickly stocked with a four-track and microphone. At the time, Morby was finishing 2019's Oh My God, but working with the limitations of the four-track inspired him to begin working on another set of songs, ones that more accurately reflected his new life.
Morby was also falling in love. Katie Crutchfield, better known as the golden voice behind Waxahatchee, began staying at the house for weeks at a time. Morby would spend the day out in the shed, sweating or freezing depending on the season, and then go back inside around sunset, spending the rest of the night with Crutchfield. It was a comfortable pattern, one that created an insular world for the new couple. They'd soon created a shorthand for their world -- the house was named "The Little Los Angeles" and, as melancholy types unwinding after a day of creating, they were its "sundowners".
The result of those months is Sundowner, a record that harkens back to the more stripped-down, gothic folk of his debut, 2013's Harlem River. For those following Morby's career, it might seem like an untimely turn. His last two records, 2017's City Music and last year's Oh My God were ambitious concept records that found Morby stretching himself as an artist and gaining bigger audiences in the process.
But despite some spectacular moments, both albums felt uneven, with more than a few songs that felt forced in the name of executing a Big Idea. However, writing Sundowner's songs with the four-track forced him to pare down those impulses. Although those demos were eventually re-recorded at the Sonic Ranch with producer Brad Cook (who also produced Crutchfield's Saint Cloud), the album's highlights still evoke the essence of those initial sessions. Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.
On the few tracks where he's backed by a rhythm section, just Cook and Big Thief's James Krivchenia, the results are explosive. Opener "Valley" follows a guitar solo to extraordinary heights, while "Wander" finds Morby shredding in the spirit of Neil before bringing the band to life with his percussive vocals. And then there's the centerpiece of the record, the mesmerizing "Campfire". The first half is just as exciting as the other Cook/Krivchenia tracks, with a guitar lick that's as infectious as anything Morby's written to date. Like many of his songs, "Campfire" is about struggling to accept death, with talk of friends gone missing and specific references to the untimely death of Jessi Zazu of Those Darlins. Then, halfway through, the music cuts out; all that can be heard are logs on a fire and Crutchfield's distant voice singing, "Stay calm, stay calm, and give me your palm / A song, a song for you." Morby soon returns, but everything's changed. "Stay calm, stay calm, and give me your palm / A song, a song for you," he sings, his voice now with a bit of life.
Throughout Sundowner, Morby sounds at peace with his surroundings. "Put your hands around my throat and ask me what's my name / Look me in the eye, I'll tell you Kansas," he sings on "A Night at the Little Los Angeles". Sometimes, he couldn't be clearer. "I have fun with you; I have fun," he says on "Don't Underestimate Midwest American Sun". Unfortunately, sometimes that comfort comes at the expense of his songwriting, especially on the back half of Sundowner, which is a lot less inventive than its front. The somber "Jamie" is moving until it rehashes 2014's "Parade". "Provisions" is a stellar closer until Morby begins counting out his rhymes, just as he's done in the past. These moments might be intentionally self-referential (it's not too hard to imagine them being worked into a live medley) but for someone who's written some of the last decade's best songs, they feel cheap.
Sundowner probably won't convert anyone who's not already a fan of Morby. It's his best album since 2016's Singing Saw, which found Morby transmuting his folk songs into a more adventurous place, but it stops short of attempting to push further into uncharted territory. That doesn't seem to bother Morby. He sounds absolutely content with where he is.