My Dad’s sister will be 104 years old next month. She has never married and my sister and I, along with two cousins that we never see, are her closest relations. After several falls and other mishaps, my sister and I arranged for her to go into a residential care home a month ago. She was very reluctant at first and we told her it would only be for a short time although we knew it might be a long term stay. We both felt very guilty about this deceit, even though it was for the best possible reasons. I went to see her a couple of weeks ago. During the two hour drive to get there, I strongly identified with Mark Twain who once said “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles but most of them never happened”. I was anticipating my aunt shouting at me that she wanted to go home. Of course, when I got there, she was so pleased to see me that she forgot all about her situation. In fact, she acknowledged that it was better for her where she was even though, like all of us, she wished she was 30 years younger.
I had shared my worries with my sister before going and she suggested that I take some photographs with me. I hunted down a number of snaps of my aunt that I had taken over the years and, when I showed them to her, she was delighted. We laughed at a photo I had taken of her, aged 93, wearing a safety hat. Roo and I had taken her on holiday with us to Norway where we went on a fascinating coach trip to some of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen along with a hydropower plant, where wearing ridiculous looking hats was compulsory. The following year my aunt accompanied us to Ypres for an equally interesting holiday although I decided that taking pictures of graveyards to a 103-year-old was maybe not appropriate.
One of the reasons (possibly the only reason) that my aunt likes to see me is that, apart from the beard, I look like my Dad and she worshipped him. He was one year younger than her and he died 22 years ago. She occasionally calls me Neville, which was my Dad’s name. Whilst I was looking for some photos to take with me, I came across a photo of my Dad which I had taken one Christmas, probably around 30 years ago, when he would have been in his early seventies. I never like getting people to pose for photos. My preferred method is to surprise someone before clicking a button in order to obtain a natural picture. I suppose that says two things about me: I don’t think it’s “natural” to be smiling and I like to be a smart-arse and do something unexpected. Anyway, this photo of my Dad invoked a deep emotional response from me. It’s possible to interpret the look that he gave as one of annoyance, irritation or even anger but I don’t interpret it like that. He was, generally, a serious man and relied on my Mum’s playfulness to lighten his mood. I recognise both my parents’ personality traits in me. He had been in the Fleet Air Arm in the war and I guess that, these days, his subsequent alcohol dependency would be attributed to PTSD. At the time, and for me, he was a complex, loving, kindly, impatient and occasionally frightening man. I can see all of these in this photo.
A few years ago, singer-songwriter Kevin Morby’s family got together for a meal and his Dad suffered a (non-fatal) heart attack. Whilst anxiously waiting to see how he was, he found a photo of his father and wrote a song about it. In fact, he named his new album “This Is A Photograph”. In the song, he describes how his father looks and goes on to speak on his father’s behalf by singing “this is what I’ll miss after I die: my body, my girls, my boy, the sun”. In the second verse he describes a photo of his mother in the same way and, in the last verse, he finds a picture of himself. These lines and discovering the picture of my Dad have had a profound impact on me over the last few days.
A photo can do that. As Kevin Morby sings in the last song “Goodbye To Good Times”, a photograph is “a window to the past”. Jackson Browne did something similar with “Fountain Of Sorrow”, from “Late For The Sky”, (the sixth best album of all time), when he finds a picture of an old lover. When taking the photo, he had taken “her childish laughter by surprise”. He regrets the way things turned out with her and at the end of the song he interprets the look on her face like this: “You could be laughing at me. You’ve got the right. But you go on smiling, so clear and so bright”. It’s a beautifully tender moment of apology, regret and love. Again, the photograph is a window to the past. In the photo I took of my Dad, I think that he has just cooked Christmas lunch; he’s tired from the effort but proud of his contribution. He’s happy that his family is at home and yet the horror that he experienced 50 years earlier has never quite left him. He is aware of his age although blissfully unaware that he will die in less than ten years. His face reflects all the happiness in his life that has not quite compensated for the horrible experiences he has endured. This is how I interpret this particular window to the past. Is he wondering about what he will miss after he dies? Are we all wondering that? I don’t want to die in the next year because I want to see if Brighton can qualify for Europe.
“This Is A Photograph” is not especially typical of this remarkable album. The musical styles are so varied that there probably is no typical track. Kevin Morby’s conversational singing style shoots out the words over a 14 note guitar riff that permeates the song. Unlike the majority of songs on the album, this is an up-tempo song with horns and an exciting musical climax. The video of the song includes many photographs, three of which, presumably, are the subject of the song. A bridge between the first two verses summarises one of the main themes of the album. Kevin Morby sings that “time’s the undefeated champion of the world“. This point is repeated in many different ways through most of the songs and the final verse of the final song on the album, “Goodbye To Good Times” is “This is a photograph, a window to the past, of a family growing old inside the boxing ring of time in Bittersweet, Tennessee“. There is no stopping, or defeating time. Its progress is relentless and there is no stopping it, much as we would like to. Much as my aunt would like to be 30 years younger, there’s no point in wishing it so. Time marches on. Today, we are all one day nearer the day that we die, than we were yesterday.
“Bittersweet, TN” is a sad duet about a lost love. Erin Rae shares the lead vocals with Kevin Morby. She is a girl who was left behind in Tennessee whilst he finds out that an old lover has got old and sick and, possibly, died. “The living took forever but the dying went quick”. “A Random Act Of Kindness” is sung from a state of despair in which Kevin Morby has no grace, no money, no lust and no time. He is begging for friendship from anyone – a random act of kindness is all he needs.
Both “Disappearing” and “A Coat Of Butterflies” reference the accidental drowning of Jeff Buckley in the Mississippi River in 1997. Kevin Morby urges us all not to go swimming with boots and a jacket, as Jeff Buckley did. He goes on to praise Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” and claims that, compared to Leonard Cohen’s version, he “gave it wings“. He sings that Jeff Buckley had the voice of a sweetheart, “but the sweetheart got drunk“, which is a reference to the unfinished second album, “My Sweetheart The Drunk”, that Jeff Buckley never completed. Throughout both of these songs, there is an overwhelming sense of regret as to what happened and how he wishes that time could rewind. In the final verse, Kevin Morby recalls how when he was young, he used to dream of “singing in some kingdom”. He revisits this dream in the final song on the album, “Goodbye To Good Times” when he sings “When I was a little boy, I wanted to live and breathe inside a song. Well how about this one.”
The importance Kevin Morby attaches to writing songs is re-iterated in “Stop Before I Cry“. He is in a relationship with Katie Crutchfield, the leader of Waxahatchee and this is a very direct, loving, uncompromising song directed to her. It’s as if she was the person who provided the random act of kindness he was desperate for. He understands that even if they part, he can live in her songs and she can live in his. He sings, “Katie, when you sing to me, it’s like a melody, coming off the mountain, coming out of the sea, up into a Memphis sky.” He urges her to stop singing before he cries.
“Rock Bottom” is the second up-tempo song on the album and describes the singer describing that all of his life he has tried to be like his father. It leads into another song of regret, “Five Easy Pieces” in which the singer states that “all of my life has been wasted on you baby”. The film, “Five Easy Pieces” tells the story of Bobby Dupea, whose aimless existence is in contrast to his privileged upbringing. When Bobby learns that his father is dying, he travels to his family home, taking along a girlfriend with coarse manners. Kevin Morby’s song includes these lines: “Oh Bobby, baby, oh Bobby, child. You fuck like a monster, but you still drive me wild.”
“It’s Over” summarises all the themes of the album in one magnificent song. Thinking back to past times, he wonders what has happened to his life. He remembers singing with Cassie Ramone, with whom he released two albums as The Babies in 2011 and 2012. What led him to renting room 409 at The Peabody Hotel in Memphis (which is where he stayed when he recorded this album)? The final track “Goodbye To Good Times” explains that sometimes the good die young and sometimes they survive. As examples, he gives Otis Redding and Diane Lane (an American actress who has helped to promote peace and abolish hunger). “I miss the good times, Mama, they’ve gone out of style and I don’t remember how it feels to dance. Goodbye to good times.”
“Time ain’t nothin’ when you’re young at heart and your soul still burns”
“Don’t wait till the break of day, ’cause you know how time fades away.”
Another contender for album of 2022.
Everything Was Beautiful by Spiritualized
The Voltarol Years by Half Man Half Biscuit,
How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars by The Weather Station,
I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me by King Hannah,
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You by Big Thief,
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