‘Oh My God’ is an album of contradictions that sit comfortably with one another. A non-religious gospel record, Kevin Morby takes us on an ambivalent road trip through rock and roll’s bible belt. An ode to the genre’s finest and to its future. A mythical journey that explores the peripheries of the sonic world of rock and roll just as much as it does the essence of the human experience and its relationship with religion.
Opening with the tinkly barrelhouse piano title track, Morby evokes a sense of the traditional American balladry, complete with a widescreen cinemascope production that makes room for a loose and jangly saxophone reminiscent of early 70s Springsteen. Whilst the heartland feel of his earlier work is still evident, it is clear that Morby is gradually transitioning into a more musically adept songwriter, as he continues his move away from the more pastoral folk rocks roots of his earlier work, and transcending above the city slicker rock and roll of ‘City Music’ in favour of song formats that are more relaxed and an aesthetic whereby sonic flourishes are encouraged.
‘Oh my God’ signposts a clear preference for more creative arrangements. As a song threatens to sink into the all too familiar it is immediately turned on its head, whether that be in terms of choice of instrumentation or opting for a shift in dynamics. This is nowhere more evident than on lead single ‘No Halo’ which begins with a tight hand-clapped beat and call and response chorus before morphing into a more sultry lounge jazz number complete with a smorgasbord of luscious woodwind and brass instrumentation.
“I tried to pray but I didn’t know what to say/ so just mumbled some names and hope they’re ok” Morby sings on ‘Piss River’ as he dissects his relationship with God and in particular death. “Oh my God momma I’m scared” he cries to the sound of an ascending harp, one of the many angles Morby adopts as he pours over the divergent ways and situations in which people turn to a saviour in search of reason.
Whether it be as a means of happiness (‘Congratulations’) or in the isolated moments of sadness (‘Seven Devils’), Morby compounds the confusion inherent in religion and the flexibility of the concept in allowing humans different ways to deal with a plethora of emotional states, something that is reflected in his equally varied sonic stylings, whether it be the T-Rex inspired, retrograde stomp rock of ‘OMG Rock n Roll’ or the coupling of a soft synth hum and simple drum beat to devastating effect on the heartfelt ‘Nothing Sacred/ All Things Wild’.
The theme of contrasts is one that Morby plays on extremely well across ‘Oh My God’. ‘A lady believed in something holy/ so much she went to war’ he sings on the Dylan-esque ‘Hail Mary’ lamenting how some people’s devotion causes them to adopt extreme attitudes before later admitting his wish to abide by the positive moral codes set by religion on ‘I want to be clean’.
Such natural juxtapositions even appear on the ambient ‘Storm (beneath the weather)’ which sees the violent clash of thunder offset the soft patter of rain outside, epitomising how the law of contrasts is just as evident in the natural world as it is our human lives.
The epic final track ‘O Behold’ sees Morby physically embody a figure caught between both the worlds of good and evil as he sings of ‘horns from my head, wings from shoulder’. One of a litany of biblical references that appear throughout the record, and whilst Morby himself is ‘not in the slightest’ a religious individual, sees him recognise the spirituality that surrounds us in our lives and its intrinsic place in the society we live in. Borrowing from both sides as he pits devilish blues rock guitar licks off against the purity of gospel choirs.
’Oh My God’ is an exploration of the individual experiences through the prism of religion, an internal mediation that grapples with an array of the most human of themes, whether it be relationships, mortality, the weather or simply a love of music and song. ‘Oh My God’ is Kevin Morby’s attempt at crafting his own post-modern American Songbook. The sound of a succinct vision - executed precisely as intended.
Words: Rory Marcham
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