The Mexican border: on one side, the contained security of El Paso Texas, the safest city in the United States. And on the other, the ruthless bustle of Juárez, where the reign of drug cartels have seen it escalate into one of the most dangerous communities in the world. In the no man’s land near the border, there lies a shady pecan farm – and it is here that ‘Post Tropical’, the strange but beautiful second album from James Vincent McMorrow, was brought to life.
2010’s ‘Early in the Morning’ took James from pushing trolleys at an airport and recording in an isolated cabin near the Irish Sea to a number 1, gold-certified debut album, and a nomination for Ireland’s Choice Music Prize. Along the way, there were shows everywhere from the Royal Festival Hall to Later…with Jools Holland, and a breakout hit in the charity cover of Steve Winwood’s ‘Higher Love’. McMorrow’s first record was the formative sounds of a songwriter who suddenly found people giving a damn. “I’m so proud of that album,” he says now, “but I never longed to be a guy with a guitar. You play these songs live as best you can, and suddenly you’re a Folk musician. But the texture of this record is completely different. This is the kind of stuff I actually listen to.”
‘Post Tropical’ is a stunning piece of work – built up slowly but spontaneously from hundreds of non-linear sound files and disparate lyric pages, resulting in ten meticulously-crafted songs. Its broadened horizons may come as a surprise to everyone but McMorrow himself, who has (amongst other things) harboured a lifelong love of hip-hop and atmospheric R&B. “I found a zip drive recently, which dates back to before I made my first record, and I’d re-recorded every single part of the N.E.R.D album – apart from the vocals – just for the joy of it. I wanted to give this record the feel and movement of the R&B records that I love.”
Fast-forward to 2016 and James is poised to continue that wave of momentum with the release of his third, full-length LP, We Move. Written and recorded between Toronto, Dublin and London, the album is McMorrow’s most expansive, generous and ambitious record to date – following in the massive footsteps of 2010’s platinum-selling Early In The Morning and acclaimed follow-up Post Tropical, which lead to sold-out worldwide shows, including two nights at the Sydney Opera House.
Far from the dense, protective imagery at the heart of Post Tropical, We Move is ultimately a record open in its portrait of anxiety and social unease. For McMorrow, it’s about celebrating mental fragility and how we move forward in life, rather than, “people listening to my songs and believing that I’m out in the forest all day long, thinking about trees. Because I’m actually at home, trying to convince myself to go out and get milk.”
The first steps towards the release of We Move took place in 2014, when McMorrow – having been asked to write for different artists’ projects – started sketching out ideas for others on tour (and subsequently stopped over-analysing his own work). Intent on doing the opposite of everything he’d done thus far in his career, McMorrow then came off the road as a musician, but continued to travel and write, before returning to Dublin determined not to just produce another album himself, but to work with people who could articulate the unique world he heard in his head.
Those people eventually became a list of the who’s who of the production world, namely Nineteen85 (Drake, DVSN), Two Inch Punch (Sam Smith, Years & Years), and Frank Dukes (Kanye West, Rihanna). Mixing took place largely in Miami with one of McMorrow’s all-time heroes, Jimmy Douglass (Jay Z, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake), who finessed the record’s warm, vintage sound, while still infusing it with a forward-thinking feel.
The resulting record is essentially the realisation of McMorrow’s long held musical fantasy – “I grew up wanting to write songs like Neil Young but produce them like The Neptunes”. The first single ‘Rising Water’ epitomises that concept entirely, with its starkly-produced composition reflecting his hip hop influences, while also laying the perfect foundation for the layers of McMorrow’s ethereal falsetto, with which he sings with a skyscraper-sized sense of catharsis.
It is just the first taste of what we can expect from We Move – an album that continues a remarkable journey for the Dublin-born singer/songwriter, whose early work offered little clue as to the sounds and situations that would follow. It’s a remarkably assured collection that is sure to be judged as one of the most triumphant releases of the year.