Anaïs Mitchell is a singer-songwriter from Vermont. Her most recent album, Child Ballads, was released in 2013 by Wilderland Records.
I had never heard the Irish artist James Vincent McMorrow before signing on to write about his second album Post Tropical, but I did see that he had done a cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” which is one of my favorite songs of all time and a bold choice of a song to tackle. So I was curious to hear McMorrow’s own music.
I listened to Post Tropical many times at home in Vermont, where there’s currently snow on the ground. I have a little baby, and I’m not getting out of the house much. Despite the cover art and the fact that it was made in Mexico, this is a wintertime record. Also, a sad record. The feeling it inspired in me most was nostalgia. The first track “Cavalier” really nails that right away: “I remember my first love.” I listened with the baby, looking out on the ice and fog, and a few times I listened with my postpartum workout video in the background. If you ever want to hear a real crazy mash-up, just combine a celestial male falsetto choir with a piercing female voice-over yelling “IF YOU DON’T SQUEEZE THAT BOTTOM, NO ONE ELSE WILL!”
So first off, I should say that Post Tropical is a beautiful, consistent album. McMorrow has a gorgeous voice, very pure but also vulnerable, and he can sing any note. His deep hooks are slow to bed in, but after repeated listens they feel like old friends. There are production moments that feel unusual but right, like when the cymbals and horns come in the middle of “Cavalier.” And all the songs feel of a piece, a seamless tapestry.
I think people are gonna say this record sounds like Bon Iver. I didn’t want to put that in here, I thought I’d leave it for someone else to say because Post Tropical is obviously not a cheap imitation, it’s an inspired album and a fully realized vision on the part of McMorrow. It could be pure coincidence, an artist in the situation also happening to have a beautiful falsetto and a thing for cathedral-style harmonies, epic drum and horn lines, and mostly indecipherable lyrics. (I have a songwriter friend who, for decades, has played strummy acoustic wall-of-sound gang vocal anthems with his band, and suddenly, the last couple years, people are going, “Love your Mumford vibe!”) But I can’t help make the comparison because there are a few things about this music that remind me of thoughts I’ve had about Bon Iver, which might be fun for the Talkhouse reader to consider.
One, the falsetto, because this album is 95% falsetto. I saw a documentary about Prince on the internet and someone was saying how he stepped into the void left by Smokey Robinson, because there always has to be a male falsetto in the pop world. I like this idea that the culture needs a male falsetto singer like a shaman or a medicine man. To me, there’s something very healing about a man singing like a woman, and vice versa. It’s emotional, sexy, and it balances the chakras of society.
Second, tsonghere’s something else the culture needs that Bon Iver epitomized with For Emma, Forever Ago, and the Post Tropical story might be sort of in the same vein. It has to do with the monomyth of the hero’s journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell. What we want, what we need, is for a young man to go in a cave, wrestle the dragon, completely transform himself and then emerge with some boon for humanity. Campbell’s hero’s journey includes such beautiful stages as: “The Road of Trials,” “The Meeting with the Goddess,” “Woman as Temptress,” “Atonement with the Father,” and “Apotheosis,” which, now that I’m looking at it, doubles as a list of themes for all songs ever written. In this case the cave is the studio, the hero goes in alone (both McMorrow and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon wrote and produced these albums themselves and played almost every instrument themselves). There’s the wrestling, the transformation and the idea that these artists shed their skins somehow, their old skins — Vernon of the heartache and the band break-up and McMorrow of his identity as just a “folk singer.”
And then there’s the stolen fire of the music itself. “I want to go south of the river/Face it alone in the heart of the winter,” he sings on “Glacier.” The feeling I get from McMorrow’s galloping, marching drums and reverberating horns is of a young man riding off to do personal battle in the lonesome valley, his own voice echoing all around. We love the story because we long to shed our own skins — and if they can do it, maybe we can too.
Which brings me to a third and final point. This is music where I can’t very well hear the words McMorrow is singing. I looked to see if they were online and someone had posted the lyrics of one track on one of those sites with the pop-ups trying to sell you ringtones, but I never trust those sites anyway. So for me most of these lyrics are a mystery, but then the main hook, such as “I was/I was/in the dark,” from “All Points” or “Sometimes my hands they don’t feel like my own/I need someone to love/I need someone to hold” from “Red Dust,” will ring out above the mix and be very evocative and bear repeating. So the songs have a quality of reflective glass, an emotional abstractness that allows the listener to see him or herself there and fill in the blanks with their own story.
My perception is that these songs might also get lots of film and television syncs and make loads of money because they’re so adaptable for that same reason. This gives me a funny feeling as I have apparently completely dedicated my life to the appreciation of lyrics, both as a writer and as a listener. So the idea that maybe most people don’t really want or need to hear and understand lyrics never ceases to blow my mind. The silver lining is, did y’all see the Joe Cocker video where somebody put in subtitles and related imagery for his iconic Woodstock performance of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and it was so right on, like, “Oh hey hen, I’m gonna pat all eggs?” If anyone ever makes a vid like that for McMorrow, I hope he won’t feel too bad, because he’ll be sitting on a pile of sync money.
Wintry, lush, and lonesome, Post Tropical is a cinematic album. The camera sweeps the frozen landscape. Close-up on the young hero, who turns his collar to the cold and heads out into the dark night. Great work, McMorrow, and all the best to the rest of ya.