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Oh My God. From the lips of drunk sorority girls to the solemn mutterings of the highest religious officials in the land, here is a phrase that moves in and out of the spirit at will. Borrowed at liberty to express surprise or concern outside of spiritual contexts, the ambiguity is part of what makes it a fitting title for Kevin Morby’s fifth solo album, out today, which he’s wryly described as a “non-religious religious record.”
If that feels like too big an oxymoron for any fellow recovering Evangelicals in the audience, try Exclaim’s “secular gospel” distinction, or my own summation, existential blues. (I would go for helplessness blues, but there’s more insouciance in Morby’s slow-drawling, windowpane poetry than there is tender searching). The age-old questions raise their weary heads, and then the dry bones dance, given a mesmerizing new tune to call their own.
Like most artists worth their salt, Morby’s work is shaped and informed by the political elements of his time, and his latest album is an earnest attempt to speak in rebuttal to them. Earlier this month, he talked at length with NPR about how modern tragedies — the police brutality responsible for murders like the one of Freddie Gray, the horror of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting — impacted him enough that he wrote the one-off “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016, and proceeded to donate any profits from the song to the organization Everytown For Gun Safety.
He typifies the track as about “the heartbreak of the world,” and it ends up functioning as a sort of prologue to Oh My God, the lyrics skewered halfway through with a mournful, incredulous string of oh my God, oh my Lords that audiences, and the singer himself, latched onto as a summation of life in America in the late 2010s. It’s an exclamation that’s also a reckoning, and one that might apply to the trajectory of the songwriter himself, too.