Kevin Morby’s new album This Is a Photograph, due out May 13 via Dead Oceans, begins with snatches of conversation between a child and parent. It’s hard to follow the dialogue — there’s tape fuzz, birdsong, a child calling out “Mama!” — but the sample sets a nostalgic tone, suggesting home videos and long-gone memories.

It’s a fitting introduction to This Is a Photograph, an “Americana paean” that wrestles with family, artistry, and mortality across 12 introspective tracks. Kansas City-based Morby stages these themes over a wide open sonic palette: samples and saxophones coexist smoothly with banjos and fiddles, while organs and gospel backing vocals emphasize the weight of his questions. Still, the album retains a playful edge. “Rock Bottom,” for instance, features kooky recorded laughs from actress Alia Shawkat and comedian Tim Heidecker. The latter also stars in the track’s music video, and recently backed Morby in a performance of “Five Easy Pieces” for his podcast Office Hours.

Title track “This is a Photograph” tackles the album’s central anxieties head-on. Centering on a youthful photograph of Morby’s father discovered after a jarring trip to the hospital, the song describes in detail a young man “ready to take the world on, beneath the West Texas sun.” The evocative imagery burns on a driving, rootsy beat until Morby lets loose with a cry that “this is what I’ll miss about being alive, this is what I’ll miss after I die.” The music video belies the urgency of this contradiction, racing headlong between photographs and scenes of Morby wandering through fields and roadside motels until a sudden halt leaves him and the viewer staring at the sky.

If “This is a Photograph” is a photo album, “Bittersweet, TN” is a love letter laid over a wistful old-time sound. The duet with Erin Rae attempts to reconcile the shortness of life, asking early on “how does one sail on the waves of time?” and recalling the feeling of being “just a kid wondering when you’d get big.” Despite lamentations that “there was no time” for all that they wanted to accomplish, Rae and Morby ultimately decide to celebrate, cheersing time itself with a warm repetition of “have one on me.

In “Coat of Butterflies,” Morby’s reflections expand outward, commenting on the transforming possibilities of art amidst the turmoil of the everyday. This Is a Photograph began its life in Memphis, and “Coat of Butterflies” is haunted by the spirit of Jeff Buckley, calling “Jeff, if you’re anything like me, you only care about America, where you’re always in someone else’s wake.” Morby lightly upsends Leonard Cohen’s singing while evoking the musician’s penchant for juxtaposing beauty and depravity, spinning lines like “I heard you had the voice of a sweetheart, but the sweetheart was out getting drunk” and “she’s violent and she’s stubborn and she’s ugly, but I love her.” The track also features a lush, jazz-influenced backdrop: Cochemea Gastelum of the Dap-Kings returns on the saxophone, while recent DownBeat “Rising Star” Makaya McCraven appears on drums and Brandee Younger features on the harp.

In spite of the crushing weight of time, we fall in love, and on “Stop Before I Cry” Morby explores the terrifying vulnerability of doing so toward the end of the album. “I know that I’m not perfect, just like I know that you are wild,” Morby declares in the first lines over a cautious piano backing. This admission unfurls into gorgeous strings from Charlotte, Meg, and Oliver Hill, with Morby directly addressing his partner Katie Crutchfield as he marvels “when you sing to me, it’s like a melody, coming from the mountain, coming out the sea” and “when you get dressed up, it’s hard to find the words.” Tenderly, “Stop Before I Cry” concludes with a comment on the stress wrought on relationships by current times, promising “I wanna go out dancing, as soon as the world returns.” 

On closer “Goodbye to Goodtimes,” Morby ties the strings of life, love, and artistry together with a minimalist musical backing, allowing lyrical recollections to speak for themselves over his guitar and Sam Cohen’s lap steel and tambourine. It may be hard to find the right words for transcendence, but Morby celebrates those who have tried, from soul legends Otis Redding and Tina Turner to Mickey Mantle and Diane Lane. While meditating on these icons, Morby concludes that “sometimes the good die young, and sometimes they survive” and finally finds solace for his reckonings. “When I was a little boy, I wanted to live and breathe inside a song,” he remembers. “Well, how about this one?”

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