Kevin Morby Details the History Behind Each Track on New LP “More Photographs (A Continuum)”

The companion piece to last year’s This Is a Photograph is out now via Dead Oceans.
Track by Track

Kevin Morby Details the History Behind Each Track on New LP More Photographs (A Continuum)

The companion piece to last year’s This Is a Photograph is out now via Dead Oceans.

Words: Mike LeSuer

Photo: Katie Crutchfield

May 26, 2023

Maybe this is a byproduct of the photo-dump era of demo releasing that came with the early pandemic years, but it seems like with each passing year there’s a smaller gap between when an album drops and when we get the behind-the-scenes outtakes that have traditionally only become available on notable-anniversary re-releases. But rather than dropping a deluxe edition to This Is a Photograph, originally released a year ago this month, Kevin Morby got creative with it, presenting the paths which that album’s recordings could have taken with a sort of multiverse full-length titled More Photographs (A Continuum) which, to continue the photo album metaphor, recreates the imagery of the original record from slightly different vantage points.

Yet after one listen to More Photographs it becomes clear that this is less of a B-sides collection and more of an alternate A-sides record dipping into intimately familiar lyrics and/or melodies—such as opener “This Is a Photograph II” grafting the original song’s words onto a different riff Morby considered immediately after writing the first one, or “Bittersweet, TN” being reworked for its original slower tempo (and barely retitled “Bittersweet, Tennessee”). “It’s hard to explain,” Morby says of Continuum track “Triumph,” one of the collection’s wholly original recordings, “but sometimes songs just end up on the factory floor even if you love them a lot.” You don’t always have to kill your darlings.

To give us a better picture of how these tracks relate to those on This Is a Photograph, and to explain why others didn’t fit the LP’s narrative, Morby walked us track by track through the project below.

1. “This Is a Photograph II”
I wrote this version shortly after writing the original. I had this new guitar riff that was speaking to me and was surprised when I found myself wanting to use some of the same lyrics from “This Is a Photograph” over it. I knew I wanted the original version to be on the proper album, though, so I contemplated ditching the lyric motif and saving this new riff for a future song, but I’m a big proponent of “first idea, best idea” when it comes to songwriting so I decided to run with it and simply just make this a different take on the same theme. Although it pulls some of the exact same lyrics out of the original, I largely used this version as a platform to be a bit more abstract and write more in metaphor and not as literal as I did on “This Is a Photograph.”

When it came time to record it, Sam Cohen and I let our imaginations run wild and we ultimately landed on wanting to give it some sort of French disco orchestral feel, giving nods to the guitar hook from the original version. We contacted Trey Pollard at Spacebomb to do the arrangements and he did an incredible job. 

2. “Triumph”
This song is one of my favorites to come out of the batch written when preparing to make the original album. In fact, it’s a big reason why I made this companion record—to get this song out there somehow. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes songs just end up on the factory floor even if you love them a lot. In my opinion, this song could be put in the ring with any others on the original album, and I’m glad people will have a chance to hear it now and I hope they enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it. 

Written during a writing retreat in Memphis in 2020 I was enamored by and writing constantly about the many tragic deaths of some of my musical heroes that have taken place in or around Memphis over the past century. In this song, I’m singing about the tragic passing of Chris Bell from Big Star, who in December of 1978 crashed his Triumph TR7 sports car into a light pole and passed away at age 27. We recorded three or four different versions of this song and we landed on loving this one the best. 

3. “Bittersweet, Tennessee”
This is the original tempo and arrangement of how I wrote and envisioned us recording this song. I always imagined “Bittersweet, TN” as a slow and sprawling folk tune—heavily inspired by Gillian Welch’s song “I Dream a Highway Back to You”—but we ended up speeding it up in the studio and so here I wanted to give listeners the original vision. Dueted once again alongside Erin Rae (one of the best singers alive today) with Sam Cohen playing those wonderful lead guitar parts. Sam and I recorded this just the two of us in a room sitting across one another with acoustic guitars and had Erin do her vocals remotely from Nashville.

4. “Going to Prom”
Much like “This Is A Photograph II,” this was written around the time I wrote all the other songs on This Is a Photograph and was a reimagining of sorts as well as a continuation of the same lyrical themes. Except in this song I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of an aging mother who’s showing a family photo album to her son, explaining how life slowly—but suddenly—passes by and all of its landmarks, no matter how big or small, are often captured in photographs: going to prom, buying a home, giving birth, etc. 

Although this is a sorta sweet song between a mother and her son, I wanted it to feel somewhat sinister, like something eerie was looming just left of center in the stories she was telling, as if something or someone unsettling was somewhere not far off camera in the photographs she has displayed. I was listening to a lot of Hazel Adkins around this time, as well as the song “Psycho” by Eddie Noack, and I wanted “Going to Prom” to have a similar feel. 

Sam set up a makeshift drum kit for Josh Jaeger, and Josh and I tracked it in the same room to give it this sorta minimal rock ’n’ roll feel. I had recorded a song off my album City Music called “Dry Your Eyes” in a similar way with producer Richard Swift, and there’s some sorta magic in using a minimal amount of mics while being right next to one another and capturing the energy of how it feels and sounds in the room. Josh later added some percussion, including chains and a large piece of dangling sheet metal giving it that huge splash you hear, which really helped out with making the song feel mysterious. 

5. “Lion Tamer”
I wrote this song after a long day of kicking around the Memphis Zoo during the pandemic. I’d read somewhere that Jeff Buckley had a plaque dedicated to him there and that he would frequent and had even applied for a job there shortly before his death, so I went to see if I could catch a feeling. I hadn’t been to a zoo of any kind since I was a child, and where they once felt magical and vibrant, let me tell you, this particular one, on this particular day, felt anything but. All of the animals, of course, looked malnourished and homesick, but there was an extra shadow cast over everything by COVID and everything else that was happening in 2020.

The zoo itself felt like a metaphor for all of our lost innocence. I was immediately taken back by the depressing conditions of the lions upon entering the zoo. They were rail-thin and all sleeping together in a pile. I hadn’t seen lions like that up close in so long, the kings of the jungle, as they say, here in their incarceration. Being in Memphis of all places, there was already this idea of fallen kings and kingdoms in my head, and here I was, looking out at these sickly big cats all huddled together—a few feet from where Columbia Records donated a plaque in Buckley’s memory. 

When it came time to record, I’d been listening to a lot of The Cramps and was obsessed with their song “Human Fly” and how the singer made buzzing fly noises. l wanted to somehow incorporate making animal sounds into one of my songs, and this was the perfect platform to do so given the fact I was singing about a zoo. So I started growling at certain points in the song, which kept making Sam and I laugh our asses off while tracking it. Speaking of Sam, he absolutely killed the lead guitar part in this song. We were aiming for a sorta solo John Lennon sounding recording, and I think we got there—when I speak the part about Jeff Buckley we were wanting it to feel similar to when he says "cookie" out of nowhere in his song “Hold On.” 

6. “A Song for Katie”
I originally wrote this song on guitar, but then noticed that the hook in the riff sounded too much like Gin Blossoms’ song “Hey Jealousy” with how I was playing it. I loved the song, though, and didn’t want it to go to waste, and one day when passing through Joshua Tree on a solo road trip I ended up staying at my friend Az’s house (thanks Az...also, Az makes incredible music under the moniker Bedouine) and she had this beautiful piano that I transcribed the song on and it turned into this version. 

I’d been listening to a lot of Lana Del Rey’s album NFR! around the time I wrote this song, and in my mind I always envisioned it being sung by her and it feeling like some sorta ethereal pop song. I do this a lot when writing—envision somebody else singing it, which gives me the confidence to do or say things I may otherwise not do. We later rearranged it in the studio for This Is a Photograph, but I always loved this solo piano version and wanted people to be able to hear it, so I’m glad now they can. 

7. “Five Easy Pieces Revisited”
The original “Five Easy Pieces” is based off of the movie of the same name and the tumultuous dynamic between the two main characters, Bobby and Rayette—told from Rayette’s perspective—and here, in “Revisited,” you get Bobby’s side of the story. This is the only song on More Photographs that I didn’t write with the original batch, but instead got the idea to write after recording a sample of my live band working out the arrangement during a rehearsal. I loved how it sounded and got the idea to use it as a platform for Bobby’s side of the story to be heard, as if he was responding to Rayette through song. 

We recorded it by looping the sample and then adding more three-dimensional sounding instruments on top of it. We brought in our great friend Jared Samuel to play piano and he ended up writing a bridge, which is where the song drops off into a different chord progression and then triumphantly returns. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment magic studio moments. Right on, Jared! 

8. “Mickey Mantle’s Autograph”
Much like “Bittersweet, Tennessee” and “A Song for Katie,” this song is a reworking of “Goodbye to Good Times” off of the first record. Here it can be heard in its original picking style and arrangement with a few changes to the lyrics. I’d initially envisioned the song as a John Fahey song with vocals. I always loved this version, and it seemed that it could’ve just as easily ended up on the album, so I wanted to give it some spotlight. I say River Phoenix here, instead of Otis Redding, when talking about how “sometimes the good die young.” When I first wrote the song I’d sang River’s name but later changed the name to Otis Redding after taking a tour of Stax Records. I’m glad both versions are out there now, giving each legend a shout out. 

9. “Kingdom of Broken Hearts”
Of all the songs in this new collection, “Kingdom of Broken Hearts” is by far the most important to the conception and creation of This Is a Photograph. It’s what I like to call a “pioneer song” in that it came long before any of the other songs and paved the way for all of them. It’s one of those brave songs that carries a torch, lighting the way for whatever may be behind it. Within it is some secret kernel that contains the exact musical direction and lyrical themes I was after. It was so important that, for the longest time, I was certain that the initial album was going to be called “Kingdom of Broken Hearts,” and this was going to be the title track and centerpiece. 

But even though this song was incredibly special and was the first step into a long creative journey, sometimes these pioneer songs have a way of setting up camp somewhere behind you, and by the time you remember them you’ve already moved quite a ways away from it and written a whole new batch that can tell its story just a little bit better than they can. I was sad to leave this off the album, but am so happy that now it’s going to see the light of day.

The first part of this song is from a session we did a few years ago when recording This Is a Photograph, but the second half we cut more recently and fused the two parts together. We got our friend Saundra WIlliams to sing on it, and her voice is so incredibly beautiful. We’d changed the lyrics in the back half a lot, never feeling they were perfect, which is a big reason it never made the first album. Then during the last session, Sam and I wrote the lyrics together. 

I don’t often write lyrics with others, but this felt appropriate—writing with Sam to finish out this project we’d been working on for years, to put a stamp on this big universe we built together. On both This Is a Photograph and now More Photographs, dreams and dreamers are really the thread that connects all the songs. Ill-fated characters chasing their dreams in a race against time. These themes and characters have given me so much inspiration, and I followed each one of them as far as I could. It felt appropriate to close out this whole project with the line: “Too high to get up, too low to get down / I’m runnin’ this dream, into the ground.”