Concert Review: James Vincent McMorrow on Learning to be Comfortable with Discomfort

Dec. 8, 2016, 9:19 p.m.

“I’m never sure what to do with myself. It’s my general state of being,” James Vincent McMorrow said during his concert in Berkeley’s UC Theatre last Tuesday, chuckling in his low, rumbling bass of a voice. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself as an audience member either. Throughout the first half the crowd was unfocused, clinking glasses and murmuring with friends while occasionally looking towards the stage. There was a palpable feeling of awkwardness in the intermissions between songs, as if we reflected the lanky musician onstage who wasn’t entirely comfortable with his own music.

Part of it had to do with the volume imbalance: The 33-year old Irish musician’s raspy falsetto is his celebrated trademark, but large, live concert environments tend to swallow his voice up. It’s never a problem when it’s just McMorrow and an acoustic guitar or keyboard, but having to match a full backing band (a talented one at that — his two backup singers had perfect, ghostly voices) as well as pull off his explorations into rock and hip-hop sounds means that he dangerously strains his delicate voice just to be heard.

But let’s return to discomfort: Being uncomfortable is arguably the central conception of McMorrow’s newest album, “We Move,” an album that departs drastically from his previous two in terms of style as well as creation. Instead of producing the album in some solitary recluse in Ireland or Texas (like he did for the first two), McMorrow traveled between LA, Toronto, London, and Dublin, literally taking himself out of his comfort zone. And it’s this in-betweenness, this constant self-questioning, that makes for such inspired music.

In fact, McMorrow has a way of making his awkwardness entirely lovable, judging from the many declarations of marriage throughout the night. In a way, he is comfortable with being uncomfortable. A self-described introvert, he joked onstage that being a musician was probably a “horrible profession” for him to be in. But it’s clear that McMorrow didn’t want to be anywhere else except on that stage that night singing his heart out.

Given all of this long-winded justification of discomfort, what was truly surprising was McMorrow’s gradual emergence out of his shell in the second half of the set. As soon as the upbeat rhythm of “Rising Water” began, McMorrow loosened up, moving around stage, gesturing to the audience. During the punchy choruses of “Killer Whales” and “One Thousand Times,” he stayed behind the keyboard but stamped his foot to the rhythm in a curiously graceful way and bobbed to the beat. Musing earlier that his songs weren’t really great for dancing, McMorrow disproved his own statement that night with his shy, yet infectious energy.

Although live performances are a tricky situation for the singer to find the right balance, it also highlighted McMorrow’s effective pattern of opening up his songs in the choruses, as in the way “Surreal” starts out muted then blossoms into an expansive, blissful plane of echoing harmonies. Above it all, McMorrow’s pure, high D note soared through for what seems like forever until the very end of the song when only a couple of synth chords and his voice remained. In “I Lie Awake Every Night,” he sang his lyrics “have you come here to save me” with a hesitant enunciation and wavering voice. But with the shift into the chorus, McMorrow burst out with a desperate vibrato “you’ll never learn, you’ll never learn how much I want to burn.” It is these constant highs and lows, these endless contrasts of pulsing electric bass and gossamer melodies that McMorrow is learning to thrive on and that we as listeners learn to savor.

McMorrow’s appeal as a musician is built from weakness: That might sound paradoxical, but it is the contradictions in his ghostly music, his uncertain stage presence, and his fragile yet powerful voice that give him his compelling aura of humility and honesty.

Contact Andrea Lim at anlim ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Andrea Lim is a junior majoring in English and minoring in German Studies. When she's not writing for the Daily's music beat, she's a classical pianist and freelance photographer. Other loves include boba, Alabama Shakes, fashion, Gilmore Girls, fantasy and sci-fi literature, Stephen Sondheim, and good conversation. To contact her, please email anlim 'at' stanford.edu.

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