James Vincent McMorrow
So you come around as the weather starts to change,
and you settle in. And the best has yet been made.
When you live in the frozen wasteland christened "Minnesota" by foolhardy explorers of old, winter isn't just a season. It's a yearly battle against the elements for both sanity and survival, and while you're in the thick of it, it can seem to be endless. Knowing this, and with more than a few Midwestern winters under my belt, I approached this year's winter with a good amount of trepidation. But in the thick of the bitterly cold month of January, I discovered something that would turn the seemingly hostile ice and snow around me into something hauntingly beautiful, and even a little friendly.
James Vincent McMorrow likely did not set out to create the perfect winter record. Born in Ireland, the singer-songwriter’s first album, Early in the Morning, was widely seen as an exciting new voice in the Irish folk scene, although he didn’t necessarily mean it to be. Shy and often scatter-brained in interviews, McMorrow began to accidentally generate a similar image to the one that has followed musicians like James Blake and Justin Vernon doggedly, despite their best efforts. But much like both of those artists, he is much more than the “shy dude with a beard and/or from the UK making beautiful music that uses falsetto” summary that he is so often given.
Speaking to the Guardian, he put it simply: “"I have no interest in making music that's built for an antique shop," said McMorrow. “It bothers me when musicians listen to music from the 60s and try and recreate it. Those people weren't trying to recreate music from the 20s. Why do it?" And with that mentality in mind, along with a conscious intent to not repeat himself, he journeyed to a small Texas town called Torneo, where he recorded the entirety of Post Tropical as trains rattled past nearby and birds wheeled screeching overhead. Around the same time, McMorrow also elected to give up drinking, bringing a newly nervous (but earnest) feeling to his sound.
With all of these things combining together, it was difficult for some to guess what Post Tropical would be. And though it feels like a kindred spirit to the second Bon Iver album, to call it derivative would be wildly inaccurate. Sprawling with gorgeous instrumentation, the entire album combines McMorrow’s acoustic roots with the electronic sounds he loves, creating an entirely new and breathtakingly gorgeous sound that is entirely his own. His falsetto takes center stage, often times as one of only a few instruments on a track, almost always as the focus of the music. And the album that this new sound has created is not only beautiful, but layered and complex in unexpected ways, begging to be listened too over and over again until the melodies become parts of one’s life.
The album opens with “Cavalier,” a track that describes a natural scene in McMorrow’s falsetto as synths and an 808 drum machine (a constant on the record) slowly begins to establish a slow and steady rhythm for the song. The haunting beauty that evokes images of frozen rivers and mountains carries into the rest of the album, painting abstract, yet vivid, pictures in one’s mind. “Red Dust” uses a thudding bass, simple piano, and layered vocals to create an almost overwhelming soundscape that culminates in the heart-achingly human lyrics “Sometimes my hands they don’t feel like my own, I need someone to love, I need someone to hold.” The horns of “Gold” strike a triumphant chord, while “All Points” uses plucked strings in a way that seems to cut through even the most jaded listener to deliver a beautiful melody straight to one’s heart. As the album moves forward, and eventually into its climax, “Glacier” could possibly be seen as sad, but instead take on a hopeful tone, as McMorrow’s timid falsetto describes a dedication to not just surviving, but thriving the frozen environment that surrounds all. Album closer “Outside, Digging” expresses a melancholy, bittersweet ode to one’s past and future, provoking an almost instant desire to start all over again, beginning a cycle similar to the one that our planet goes through every year, each part needed for life.
McMorrow will be touring in support of the album soon, with a sold-out stop at the Cedar Cultural Center on March 26th promising to show a new layer of the multidimensional album. If it sounds as though I find it difficult to describe Post Tropical in specific terms, it’s because I do. How do you define an album that seems so masterfully created, yet organic, that it becomes a part of your life near instantly? I suspect that over the years, this is an album that will not only endure, but grow to become an old friend relied on during the colder months, and into the warmer as well. It’s not often that you find a record that so easily adds beauty to the surrounding world, but James Vincent McMorrow has made one, and I couldn’t recommend it more.