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.”
It’s a step forward that is immediate apparent on album opener and first single ‘Cavalier’ – a brooding twist on the Slow-Jam, which builds quietly from hushed keys and hand-claps to soaring brass, beats and McMorrow’s idiosyncratic falsetto. Across the album, the sounds and melodies evolved from a painstaking process of building texture: there are 808s on the haunting ‘Red Dust’, looped piano on ‘Looking Out’, and 50 mandolins made to sound like a waterfall on ‘The Lakes’. McMorrow’s sometimes-surreal songwriting holds each element in place, on album which he wrote, produced, and played virtually every instrument. Rarely has chaos sounded this controlled.
And it was on a pecan farm half a mile from the Mexican border that McMorrow brought this collection of sounds and ideas turned them into ‘Post Tropical’. The farm, which has hosted the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beach House and James’ then-neighbour Dave Sitek, was to lend a unique quality to the record; audible in the low frequencies of 200-carriage freight trains or the birds nesting in the studio rafters, but felt more deeply across the mood and culture of the album itself. “It was compelling,” James recalls. “The cartel used to carry drugs through the farm, because it was under the cover of trees, and you could walk down to the border even now and at certain points someone would throw cocaine to you. Everybody knew somebody who had been shot, and what struck us most was just how part of normal life these stories are.”
Cut off from the world and immersed in an unusual climate, McMorrow became absorbed in the unfamiliar sonic territories of ‘Post Tropical’. Tales of the local music scene also cast the record in a brand new light (“these really famous Mexican musicians were forced to play gigs in bullet proof vests. They’d make millions of dollars to perform for what was essentially a festival of 15 cartel members, who were all sitting in deck chairs. It puts your shit in perspective.”). Here, at Sonic Ranch, the traces of ‘Early in the Morning’ were finally wiped clean, leaving a palate as clear and stark as the White Sands desert in New Mexico.
What emerged was ‘Post Tropical’ – and from its title right down to the paradoxical, wish-you-were-here postcard of the artwork (juxtaposing a palm tree with a polar pear), nobody’s quite sure what that is yet. “It’s so exhausting trying to keep up with styles of music that pop up one week, and disappear the next,” says McMorrow. “For me, ‘Post Tropical’ evokes a style of music without you having a clue what it sounds like. It’s warm and beautiful, but there’s something there that’s maybe not quite what you think it is. I figured that if people were going to define the record for me, I might as well get in front of them.”
From Dublin to the Mexican border, and on a mission to make the most beautiful thing he could imagine in the process – ‘that’ is ‘Post Tropical’, and the coming-of-age of James Vincent McMorrow.