James Vincent McMorrow doesn’t bury the lede, so neither will I: The Irish singer-songwriter opens his sophomore album, Post Tropical, with a stone-cold knockout of a song, one of the finest singles in recent memory and the kind of thing that musicians spend entire careers trying to achieve. The sweltering, soul-drenched “Cavalier” begins as a whisper-quiet vocal melody over a soft bed of electric keys, gathers layer upon delicate layer of instrumental texture, and builds to a climactic symphony of horns, cymbals, and organ tones, McMorrow wailing in a desperate falsetto: “I remember my first love.”
It’s hard to fault Post Tropical for not quite managing to scale those same heights again; there are moments when it comes awfully close, and it’s remarkably polished for an album that reportedly came together over the course of just a three-week stay at a West Texas studio. McMorrow has a keen aesthetic ear and these tracks are rich with subtle leftfield touches: the coruscating harp that opens “The Lakes,” the baritone sax on the margins of “All Points,” the clarinet that bubbles up briefly on “Glacier.” Lyrically, he shows equal flair for the poetic (“I will not cave under you/For my heart is an unending tomb”) and the plainspoken (“I need someone to love/I need someone to hold”).
Where McMorrow truly excels, though, is in bringing all these elements together in loud, epiphanic moments that swell and soar and fall only reluctantly back to Earth. Much of Post Tropical follows the example set by “Cavalier,” with reflective soft-rock grooves gradually joined by rapturous brass and sturm und drang percussion, while the excellent “Look Out” achieves the same effect by brute force, as a single ocean-deep synth chord suddenly bulldozes through an otherwise scant piano ballad. All this peak-and-valley dynamism is a neat trick, even if it becomes a bit predictable.
McMorrow’s 2010 debut, Early in the Morning, was a relatively straightforward folk album; Post Tropical does enough to shake off that label for the time being, but it’s not obvious what should replace it. There are flecks of R&B and soul on “Cavalier” and elsewhere, and gospel-toned vocal harmonies can be heard on nearly every track. An uncanny vocal and physical resemblance makes it unlikely that the Justin Vernon comparisons will stop anytime soon, and McMorrow’s baroque sensibilities occasionally call to mind a smoother, less idiosyncratic version of Zach Condon’s Beirut project. But Post Tropical succeeds in proving that music is often at its most compelling when it can’t be compared or reduced to much of anything at all.