If Oh My God was Kevin Morby wrestling with his worldview and searching for existential significance, Sundowner, the latest LP from the Kansas City songwriter, marks a return back to fundamental values both personally and musically. Written and recorded in an empty shed in the backyard of Morby’s home following a bad breakup and relocation from Los Angeles back to his native Kansas, Morby’s sixth record is packed full of elemental guitar songs that feel warm and of the woods. The album is as much an homage to his Midwestern upbringing as it is a personal reckoning with the life events surrounding the project’s creation. These are songs of healing, a tribute to home and starting anew.
Morby’s previous release, the aforementioned Oh My God (2019), was full of spiritual grandeur. The album was loaded with elaborate guitar and keyboard arrangements and spawned an extensive tour that featured Morby’s largest road production to date. Sundowner also offers its own kind of majesty, albeit with a much more minimal aesthetic. The biggest sounding songs on the record, “Valley,” “Campfire,” and “Wander,” consist of rigid and angular guitar passages and limited percussion, a testament to the album’s spacious and generally quiet atmosphere. The ample space surrounding Morby’s bareboned instrumental work allows each song to sink its teeth in from a lyrical perspective. He grapples with death, new love, and aging with a calm self-assuredness, knowing he’s incapable of altering the inevitable and instead, choosing to accept each personal experience, good or bad, for what it is.
On “Campfire,” he puts to rest personal demons of the past and looks forward to the shrinking horizons in his foresight, while the tonal frenzy on “Wander” soundtracks a biographical saga of a broken soul on the run. There are also instances of Morby sparring with himself psychologically, such as on the subdued martial romp of “Brother, Sister,” which musically plays like a stark rural vignette. The most realized song from a writing standpoint, however, fittingly, is the title cut. Against the gentle strum of his acoustic guitar, Morby dwells on the isolation and loneliness confronting him at the end of each day, yearning after the warmth of the sun with a dash of melancholy: “Hey man, where’d you get your tan? / Oh, I’d like to have that sun in me.”
Ultimately, the most captivating component of Sundowner resides in its ambiance and use of slow-burning, restrained soundscapes. Tracks like “Don’t Underestimate the Midwest American Sun” and “Provisions” paint an enchanting portrait of the memories and emotions that fuel each song, and of the mystique of the stretching landscape Morby has returned to. In a way, this is what makes Sundowner the perfect 2020 album. It’s a relatively downtempo and introverted record, something you listen to alone in a bedroom or on an empty highway at dusk. Subsequently, this stripped-back quality is what makes the album so radiant and emotionally potent.