Emily Post, were she to magically resurrect some sixty years after her death, would hate Kevin Morby.
That is not to say he is impolite. Morby is wildly polite, a Midwesterner to the core, despite extended stays in New York and Los Angeles. He is self-deprecating, too, especially about his relatively new painting practice. (When I reach him at his home in Kansas City, he’s still riding the slight high of a good painting session two days earlier.) The reason Emily Post would hate Kevin Morby, at least on principle, is that he has devoted an entire album to committing the greatest dinner-party taboo: talking about religion and politics.
Granted, the United States in 2019 is hardly a beacon of civil discourse and polite conversation. Having a president such as the current occupant of the White House will do that to a country, especially if certain poorly bearded tech company CEOs continually refuse to mute his 280-character digital megaphone. Very fine people, rapists and murderers, shithole countries — you know the routine. It’s enough to make any sane person invoke the divine.
Which is precisely what Morby found himself doing over and over. And over.
“Every time I opened the news, I was saying, ‘Oh, my God,’ whether I was laughing or gasping or frightened or worried or even excited,” he says. “It really speaks for the times. If I had to sum up this era of where everything is at, I would use, ‘Oh, my God.’” Morby loved the colloquial, secular usage of the phrase — atheists don’t exactly strike it from their vocabulary when they give up the holy ghost — and decided to reimagine it “as a breadcrumb trail to something religious.” He also loved that no matter how people chose to express surprise or dismay or delight, the spiritual realm proved inescapable: “Holy shit,” “Jesus Christ,” “God in heaven,” “Good Lord!”
Morby’s parents weren’t religious, but his Kansas City upbringing provided a mix of fundamentalist evangelical churches, their billboards and that American-plains-as-God’s-country Midwestern mentality.
Headquartered just sixty miles west in Topeka, the Westboro Baptist Church had little trouble making its presence known. Growing up, Morby remembers hearing about a protest by said church over a high school production of The Laramie Project, a play based on the torture and murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. (The play remains one of the church’s preferred targets.)
“The vocabulary of religion was always there. I grew up passing billboards, and marquees instilled the fear of God into you,” he says.
It left an impression, as an angry God is wont to do. By the same token, Kansas City wasn’t just some Bible-beating backwater cowtown in flyover country. When Morby was growing up, “there were about forty cool people” in the city, he recalls, which made for an especially tight-knit music scene fostered in basements and warehouses and fed by the annual influx of artsy out-of-towners studying at the Kansas City Art Institute. It was predictably, aggressively, fundamentally DIY.
“It was the sort of thing where there’d be a hardcore band and then after the hardcore band there’d be a girl chopping up vegetables and putting it in a unicorn head, and that was the performance,” he says. “I’m very prideful of that time. That wave of Kansas City was really cool.”
A potent mix of elements created Oh My God: the aforementioned vengeful god and state of the union are high on the list, but there’s also what he calls his Midwestern DIY sensibility, a mentality that prioritizes the creativity and the work before any attendant success. There’s also the simple fact that he is now a mid-career musician who was five records into his career when he sat down to write Oh My God. With that comes with a certain degree of freedom.
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So Morby went big and made his fifth record a double LP — something he says his previous two albums, 2017’s City Music and 2016’s Singing Saw, could have easily been — and put the vocals at the forefront, stripping back the lush guitar work that characterizes his earlier material. There’s an 81-second recording of a storm in the middle, called, quite aptly, “Storm (Beneath the Weather).” “Congratulations,” a jaunty piano cut, begins with layered recordings of a child begging forgiveness. He flirts with ragtime on “Hail Mary” and leans into a mournful sax in “Ballad of Faye.” He uses an unwavering organ chord suited to the Litany of the Saints and a dutifully restrained gospel choir on “Nothing Sacred/All Things Wild” before making a hairpin turn into the sweet spot between Roy Orbison and T.Rex on “OMG Rock n Roll.”
“It’s those sorts of things that I’ve always wanted to be able to do on an album, to paint a whole picture, but haven’t felt confident enough because I felt like all my records up until this point were trying to convince people to like me,” he says. “Like, ‘Listen to this! It won’t take too much of your time, and I think you’ll like it!’ But at this point it feels like I have a solid enough following that I can take those liberties and it’s not going to bother anybody.”
True to form, Morby’s new mindset sounds a little something like faith.
Kevin Morby, 9 p.m.Saturday, May 18, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $22.50-$25, axs.com.