Kevin Morby’s debut solo album Harlem River is slower and more mellow than his group efforts, which include Woods and The Babies. Harlem River is Morby’s melancholy love affair with New York City.
The album only includes eight songs; each is a different tale about the five years Morby lived in New York. Harlem River pays homage to the first place where he made a home for himself; he moved there at 18. There is pain in the lyrics, and an honesty that resembles a diary, and the tone shifts from earnest to depressed.
The first two tracks, “Miles, Miles, Miles” and “Wild Side (Oh The Places You’ll Go),” embody Morby’s eagerness and naiveté upon moving to the city, with a faint resemblance to a late ‘70s/early ‘80s Lou Reed. On the first, Morby sings about his travels over a bluesy guitar and organ, but the music has its funky and ballad-like moments, as well. “Wild Side” is carefree, but captures the negative aspects of the freedom. Morby sings, “Why’d you let me walk on that wild side/With my head in the air full of some child’s pride?”
After the initial excitement, the title track “Harlem River” slinks along somberly, flowing like its namesake, drifting along for over eight minutes.
The song, which follows Morby’s depressed state, is the centerpiece of the album. While it moseys along, he morbidly sings, “Harlem River, swallow me/Put your arms around my neck/And Harlem River, I can’t breathe/They’ve got the lights down now/Harlem River, give me wings/Put my head up in the clouds.”
Harlem River is full of sorrowful and poetic lyricism. Morby had a friend die while he was living in New York, and the final track on Harlem River feels most closely related to the experience. The guitar twangs in the background while Morby sings about passing cemeteries and his heightened awareness of death.
Much of the album sounds lonely. The lyrics are desolate, and the instrumentation fits the depressive nature of the tracks. The drums and bass aren’t heavy or bumping, and Morby’s meloncholic guitar does most of the talking. Occasionally, there is an inkling of bluegrass, which makes for interesting tracks.
The instrumentation feels like a constant echo of Morby’s New York memories, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The sounds slip away, while the emotion stays. Sonically, Harlem River is somewhat forgettable.
Harlem River is gentile, tragic, and sentimental—the instrumentation is second to Morby’s intriguing storytelling. While there are few literal details to each narrative, each track evokes a cinematic image, and one easily slips into Morby’s psyche through his imagery. This project is narrowly focused on New York, yet the stories could apply to nearly anyone, anywhere.
Kevin Morby had stories to tell and emotions to get off his chest. His voice is honest, and Harlem River is like his diary. The narrative is imaginative, and the instrumentation doesn’t overpower, but neither leaves a strong impression—the music washes over you and moves along, just like the album’s namesake.
Kevin Morby – Harlem River tracklist:
- “Miles, Miles, Miles”
- “Wild Side (Oh The Places You’ll Go)”
- “Harlem River”
- “If You Leave and If You Marry”
- “Slow Train”
- “Sucker in the Void (The Lone Mile)”
- “The Dead They Don’t Come Back”