This Is a Photograph

this is a photograph

There is a Memphis that exists only in song, where the 20th century never ended, and the mahogany heart of Boomer Americana still pounds. It’s a city where legends—Johnny Cash and Sun Records in the ’50s; Isaac Hayes and Stax in the ’60s; Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, and many more—once lived, and might again, if only their footsteps, reverb, and room tone could be perfectly recreated. For musicians, in particular, it’s a kind of mecca: Paul Simon sang about Graceland with an old Sun-style “traveling rhythm” on his big, midlife record, which inspired him to finally go see the Mississippi Delta with his waking eyes. And then there was Marc Cohn, who parlayed a mad dash through Elvis’ estate and Al Green’s church into an anomalous 1991 hit, “Walking in Memphis.” It was crass, blatant musical tourism, but it was rousing on its own terms, and Cohn had the courage to plainly voice the question that haunts all who walk around the city’s hallowed grounds: “But do I really feel the way I feel?”

This Is a Photograph, the striking new album by Kevin Morby, is partly a document of his own Memphis vision quest. With respect to depth and quality, it’s much closer to Simon than Cohn: polished and sure, but full of heart and wild touches; broad in emotional scope, but pierced with thematic chutes and ladders; plush with period furnishings, but arranged in exciting, inviting ways. Morby sounds like Dan Bejar doing his most respectful Dylan, with that wily little wheeze. By infusing his artful folk-rock with the unfailingly pleasing sounds of vintage gospel and soul, Morby has made an ambitious record that proudly stands out in his sprawling catalog.

Morby begins This Is a Photograph by staring at a magnetic picture of his father, young and shirtless—“a window to the past,” as he sings. The driving guitar lick and brisk handclaps seem geared to grab listeners who might have brushed past the Kansas City journeyman’s half-dozen albums, well received but often inconspicuous by design, over the last decade. He had been drawn to the photo in the wake of a bad medical scare. When this jolt of mortality was followed by the new anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic, Morby fled to Memphis, where life and afterlife seemed so closely entwined. Eventually, he would finish recording the song there with the imprimatur of collaborators from Stax and Sun.

While spending a few weeks in the historic Peabody Hotel, Morby visited multiple sites of American tragedy: the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; Graceland, where Elvis slowly died; and the exact bank of the Mississippi River where the water closed over Jeff Buckley. There, he recorded the lapping sound that divides the eerie electric blues of “Disappearing” from the prismatic, pellucid “A Coat of Butterflies.” A direct address to Buckley, “Butterflies” is ravishing as bright sprigs of harp and guitar, aromatic tendrils of saxophone, and singsong harmonies swirl in the pooling embrace of celebrated jazz drummer Makaya McCraven. It’s the perfect medium in which to suspend Morby’s supple phrasing, where sturdy end rhymes hold all manner of expressive pauses and leaps firmly in place.