In Brief: The most musically unified and consistently enjoyable album I’ve heard from MMJ thus far. It doesn’t jump all over the place musically as much as their last two records, but it still has a strong 70s folk rock/jam bad/psychedelic vibe, and I love it all the more due to how committed they are to that aesthetic this time around.
I’m not what you would call a huge My Morning Jacket fan. I find the band intriguing. I’ve heard a little less than half their discography, starting with 2008’s Evil Urges, and I’m intrigued by their ability to genre-hop far beyond the southern rock/jam band sound you might expect from superficial appearances. But doing so seems to make the albums I’ve heard from the band highly erratic, to the point where there’s an extremely thin line between their most sublime songs and their most ridiculous ones. Sometimes I really like the ridiculous ones, actually; other times the more down-to-earth numbers are up my alley. They’re the kind of band that is great for spicing up playlists with individual songs that thrown in a different flavor than you might otherwise expect, but I haven’t felt the need to return to a full album of theirs beyond the first few listens up until this year’s release, The Waterfall. Mostly recorded in the tiny town of Stinson Beach in Northern California, and polished off back in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, this record pulls together ten of the highlights from recording sessions that were fruitful enough to give them enough material for two full albums, and it gives them the space to genre-hop while focusing in on a positive and occasionally melancholy mood that makes the set a lot more consistent than it otherwise would be. While they still glorify the synthesizer just as much as they do the heroic antics of Jim James and his trademark V-necked guitar, and while the lyrics can be a bit silly at times, I find myself much more engrossed by The Waterfall as a whole than I was with Evil Urges or 2011’s Circuital. (Longtime fans: Feel free to clue me in if there’s a highly consistent classic in their back catalogue that I haven’t listened to yet.)
If I had to sum up The Waterfall‘s vibe in a single word, I’d probably say “zen”. Given three words, I’d elaborate and say “deep forest zen”, because despite the synths and occasional pyrotechnics, there’s a natural vibe to most of these songs that was intended to reflect the long, lazy days and gorgeous Pacific sunsets that helped put the band in the mindset to make this record. The natural imagery on several songs transports me to a less urban, more peaceful place, which is interesting, because past MMJ records have made me think more of cities or podunk country towns, depending on the chosen genre – not so much places of natural beauty and wonder. The inciting incident for this record appears to have been some sort of a breakup that James went through, and if the lyrics are to be believed, one that he initiated because it was a chapter of his life that needed closing. While he expresses regret for the grief that this may have caused the other person, he has a sense of peace about it that makes even the saddest songs on the record feel like they’re all part of a larger plan. The relationship songs take up maybe 40% of it, while the rest of it is more generally coming to a place of peace and acceptance with the universe, with the things we can and can’t control, with the very concept of faith in things we can’t necessarily see or prove. My summation of these songs at first was “What a load of metaphysical B.S.”, but then I realized I should cut them some slack, because MMJ isn’t particularly preachy about it, and the sentiments expressed are general enough that their devotion never feels cult-like. They’re too busy enjoying the chill, 70s-era grooves of these songs to be all fired up about winning converts to any specific system of beliefs. To them, it seems to be enough if they can shake their audience out of a cynical mindset for the three-quarters of an hour that it takes to listen to this set of songs. Speaking as a person of faith who can also be a bit of a cynic, I appreciate that very much.
1. Believe (Nobody Knows)
I’ll admit that when I first heard the wellspring of synthesizers that bubble up at the beginning of this song, I was expecting some major cheese. A chorus that simply repeats “Believe, believe, believe,believe! Nobody knows” didn’t help much, either – this might in fact be the vaguest song about belief ever written. The funny thing is that I’ve come to view both of those aspects of the song as positive since then. The synths and keyboards defy my expectations of what’s real vs. what’s computerized due to how well keyboard player Bo Koster interacts with the rest of the band, especially the live drums and Jim’s guitar solo that comes up in the bridge of the song. The whole thing just makes me smile. As for the lyrics, I was annoyed by them when I felt like they were telling me to believe something but were too stubborn to specify, and I’ve come to realize that it’s not so much a command as an observation. We all believe something about the things we don’t have hard evidence to prove or disprove for sure, even if we don’t all attribute it to a god or anything supernatural. It still feels a bit like a Captain Obvious move to point that out, but then I think about how easy it is for people who are religious to disparage people who aren’t, and vice versa, and I feel like this song is reiterating a lowest common denominator just to keep the peace. Since I enjoy it when people ranging from zealous fundamentalists to hardcore atheists can actually find some common ground and have fruitful dialogue with each other, I’m all for that. (Congratulations, My Morning Jacket, you brought my inner hippie out to play and he feels pretty damn good about it.)
2. Compound Fracture
Even more synthesizer heavy is the second song, which may have some guitar in it as a supporting instrument, but darned if I can hear it doing anything significant. The drums and bass noticeably pick up the slack, so this is never a point of contention for me – just something I want to point out that makes it different from what I’d have expected. I love the groove that this song gets going and how the melody which seems simple at first becomes a bit more elaborate as the song goes on. MMJ has a knack for making songs that sound easygoing but have more happening behind the scenes than you’d realize, and this one’s a good example of that. I’ve had trouble making headway with the lyrics on this one – I know that Jim suffered some injuries during the band’s last tour that led to some downtime between albums and his more reflective state in writing the songs for this album, but I’m not sure if he’s going for an analogy between having a broken bone and taking the time to let that heal, and a wider observation of a break that seems to be happening among the human race, or if I’m just making that all up. His personal beliefs are made a bit more clearer in the pre-chorus, which goes to far as to suggest “There’s no evil, there’s no good/Only people doing as they should/Or as they shouldn’t in the light of day/God and the Devil were made up anyway.” Obviously I disagree with these sentiments, but where the me from several years ago might have condemned such a lyric, nowadays I simply think of how much oxygen people waste on proving themselves right about their beliefs that could have been spent on loving each other. I know that sounds corny. The song basically reiterating that all we need is love makes is sound slightly less corny than I do, but it’s one of those anvils that needs to be dropped, I suppose. Jim’s falsetto helps it all to go down like a nice, cool glass of iced coffee.
3. Like a River
One of the first descriptions of Fleet Foxes I first heard back when I was just getting into the band was “My Morning Jacket singing madrigals”. It would be a few months between then and my first taste of MMJ, so I had no idea what was meant by that at the time, but when I hear a song like this one, I get it. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to me until just now what an aching hole the Foxes’ lengthy hiatus had left within my heart, and how well this beautifully flowing, finger-picked, largely acoustic piece works as a consolation prize. Both bands have an obvious love for the music of the 70s, so while MMJ doesn’t necessarily drench their songs in deep vocal harmonies or let them meander off into seemingly spontaneous noodlings at the end, I think this song makes a strong case for the two bands having a lot in common. The interplay between the acoustic and electric guitars here is fantastic, the vocal melody fits beautifully on top of the repeated acoustic riff that drives the song, and pretty much everyone involved is doing their darndest to bring the rushing water and over-saturated colors of The Waterfall‘s album cover to life within my mind. the lyrics are short and impressionistic, almost like little haiku, always looping back to the simple chorus of “Like a river flowing, like a river winding its way”, and just content to rest in the beauty of that image without having to prove anything profound to us. The vocal breakdown near the end of this one is just breathtaking. (Interesting side note: I’ve noticed that for three albums straight, my favorite song on a My Morning Jacket album has been track three. That’s not a predictable result – OK, maybe the keyboard-heavy retro-pop groove of “The Day Is Coming” was quite obviously up my alley, but you’d probably never guess in a million years that “Highly Suspicious” was my favorite from Evil Urges, because that song is gratingly repetitive and I’m pretty sure it irritates the crap out of most people.)
4. In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)
You know how I said that “Believe” did two things that bugged me pretty much right away? This song was an even bigger offender at first. It starts rather abruptly with Jim chanting the word “Again” again and again and again and A-FREAKIN’-GAIN!!! and I was pretty sure I was going to hate it as a consequence, especially when the tempo suddenly changes between that refrain and the first verse, only to change back and forth again over the course of the song… I’ve just never been a fan of songs that yank a decent groove away from you just as you’re getting used to it. But that’s the thing – I actually really enjoy the moods that both of the schizophrenic pieces of this song settle into, from the low-end, brooding keyboards of the “verse”, and the more upbeat and psychedelic guitar riffs and the moog synthesizer that dominate the “chorus”. The song’s meant to be a bit of a mantra about taking control and stopping the flood of overwhelming and discouraging and disparaging thoughts that can muck up your mental state, so I suppose it needs some amount of repetition and a noticeable break from the loop that it establishes in order to make that work. Once again, the band wins me over by making it clear that they’re enjoying the hell out of playing this one. It’s really hard to describe it in a way that does it justice, but against insurmountable odds, they’ve made this one of my very favorite songs on the album, and for that matter on any MMJ album that I’ve listened to thus far.
5. Get the Point
The mildly psychedelic haze that has loomed over the past few songs clears up for this un-busy acoustic track, which also has the clearest lyrical intentions of anything on the album thus far, setting the metaphysical aside for a few minutes and offering a heartfelt apology for the unceremonious ending of a relationship. To hear Jim tell it, he’s tried and tried to make this thing work, and he’s just not feeling it, but he also feels a great deal of care and sympathy for the person he’s breaking up with, so he’s trying to do it in the nicest way possible. It’s a different angle from the usual breakup song which is from the perspective of the dumpee, and since I’m a guy, I’d normally view this sort of thing as the sort of flimsy excuse anyone could easily see right through and tell he’s just eager to get together with someone else, but in this case I’m actually willing to buy that his reasons for ending it are exactly as stated. (Score one for the sensitive guys, I guess?) It does sting a bit when he has to reiterate, “I hope you get the point, I think our love is done”, but there’s absolutely zero malice behind it. He just wants to be sure there’s no ambiguity, which I think is the respectable thing to do when ending a relationship, especially in this day and age where people break up via vague text messages or just plain drop off the grid for several months, because it’s easier than straight up telling the person you don’t want them around any more. I can’t say this is a terribly exciting song to listen to; I find myself wishing for more interaction with the rest of the band since the acoustic solo spotlight doesn’t really highlight anything beyond a basic folk tune sort of melody, with the band doing a bit of a steel guitar-laden, country-lite thing in the background but being mostly unobtrusive. But the song is an important one, since it’s the first to establish the more relational secondary theme that runs throughout the rest of the album.
6. Spring (Among the Living)
One of the longest and “jammiest” songs on the album opens its second half. Built largely around the sound of two finger-picked electric guitars looping a melody and playing off of each other in different ways, the song feels “busy” in a good way, like it’s brimming over with new life. Of course that’s appropriate for a lyric that likens coming out of a dark period in life to being an animal that has just woken up from hibernation. Jim’s looking around and lamenting all the animals who have just come out of their holes are “spend all spring looking for the next one to go down”. Screw that, it’s time to start livin’ life and drinkin’ up that sweet sunshine! Sorry, I went into motivational speaker mode for a sec there, but that’s basically how the song makes me feel. I love the way it shuffles along, building up to a plateau, backing off again, and eventually letting a sweet guitar solo rip just where you were about to think it was backing in. They’ve brought in a horn section by that point, which is meant to push the song over the top, and at first I enjoy it for that, but the song’s glaring flaw as it hovers around the five minute mark is that the horns keep blasting the same note over and over and the “jam”, as it were, feels a bit one-dimensional, being loud just for the sake of being loud. Given the song’s gradual ascent toward what I was hoping might be a breathtaking twin guitar solo climax akin to Wilco‘s “Impossible Germany”, that’s mildly disappointing. It’d be less of an issue if they knew when to put an exclamation point on the song and stop it cold, rather than dragging it out for another minute or so.
7. Thin Line
This track marries a bit of a slow R&B-type groove to some melancholy, deliberately bent guitar chords – it’s like a bit of 70s soul and 90s grunge coming together, which I know must sound like an awful mix on paper, but the outcome is actually quite beautiful in its own weird, restrained way. Here Jim picks up the narrative thread about leaving a relationship again, explaining how the two of them always seem to be going off in different directions, just a poor match personality-wise even though he thinks she’s a unique and wonderful person (a “crazy diamond”, to borrow a Pink Floyd-ism) and he does still love her in some sense. “It’s a thin line between lovin’ and wasting my time,” he explains in falsetto. His words come a little closer to stinging criticism than the mostly tender “Get the Point” did, but he’s also genuinely sad for her because apparently, “nobody loves you except for me.”
8. Big Decisions
The hardest of the stinging criticisms to hear show up in this song, which sheds a little more light on how stifling the relationship had become. Over another soulful rhythm backed by equal parts horn section and steel guitar, he describes a woman who’s either too paralyzed by fear of making mistakes or just lazy enough to expect a better life to just magically fall into her lap. He’s downright sick of it, and he asks her rather bluntly, “What do you want me to do? Make all the big decisions for you?” I’ve been on both sides of that one, where someone disappears so deeply into a relationship that they don’t have their own autonomy and they just sort of expect every aspect of their life to be consumed by that other person they’re so smitten with. it sounds romantic in principle, but it’s friggin’ annoying in practice, and I can’t blame him for getting the hell out of that situation. Overall, this is a pretty sturdy song – great vocals, decent performance, subtle but interesting blend of genres. But it does lose a few points for poor enunciation when Jim gets to the pre-chorus: “You’re sweet and sincere, but so ruled by fear.” For the longest time, I thought he was singing “You’re sweet and sexy, but so are my feet.” Obviously I knew the last word wasn’t really “feet”, but being unable to make out the correct words really took me out of the song.
9. Tropics (Erase Traces)
(OK, seriously with the parenthetical song titles? They honestly don’t anything to my immediate ability to recall which song is called which, and it just makes those song titles awkward to say out loud.) I’m detecting a bit of an Eastern bent to the long, mellow guitar intro here. I definitely enjoy it, whatever inspired it. It sets a mysterious tone for another one of those songs that takes its time to unfold but that proves to be worth it in the end. In fact, this ended up being my favorite song from the album’s back half. I enjoy tense, dramatic chord progressions and travel/transportation themes, so of course I was going to relate immediately to Jim’s desire to be “off the map”, to drive until he reaches a place he no longer recognizes and he can just spend as long as he needs to recuperate where no one can find him. Whether that’s a long, sweaty hike in some exotic rainforest or sipping mai tais on the beach will be left to the listener to interpret, I suppose. But I think there’s more than simple escapism at stake here – the song gets pretty intense in its second half, with the guitars squealing and the drums crashing. This band has a dynamic for going from soft to loud where you don’t always expect them to, and it helps to set them apart from other bands who might mine similar nostalgic sounds without really nudging at the boundaries of those genres to see what can be done with them creatively.
10. Only Memories Remain
This song is just… I don’t know. MMJ seems to have at least one of these on every album that just bores the hell out of me and drags on and on without doing much to deliver on the initial promise of a subtle but pretty melody. On Evil Urges it was “Look at You” and “Smokin’ From Shootin'”, and on Circuital it was the painfully dull closing duo of “Slow, Slow Tune” and “Movin’ Away”. One track out of ten ain’t bad in comparison on this album, but this heartfelt slow jam goes on for seven minutes, and it uses up whatever interesting melodic and textural ideas it’s got within the first three, I think. A chorus that simply repeats the title over and over doesn’t help, given how long the band spends vamping on it and doing their faux-Eric Clapton guitar thing. The mood they set is a beautiful and sentimental one – don’t get me wrong here. The song puts the deceased relationship into its final place of peace and rest, preserving the good memories that were made in a place where they can never be harmed or forgotten, refusing to let the breakup tarnish the genuine feelings of love that both of them had experienced. For all I know, if the dumpee was a songwriter herself, she could be writing some harsh, vitriolic tune from her perspective about getting left when she was still very deeply in love and still not understanding why. But from Jim’s perspective, there’s a genuine sense of peace as he moves on with his life, and while I wish the band could manage something other than a seven-minute holding pattern as he tries to express that, there are seeds of a much more interesting and dynamic song that for all I know, could turn into something a bit more special if the band opens it up a bit in concert.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Believe (Nobody Knows) $1.75
Compound Fracture $1.25
Like a River $2
In its Infancy (The Waterfall) $1.75
Get the Point $.75
Spring (Among the Living) $1.25
Thin Line $1.25
Big Decisions $1
Tropics (Erase Traces) $1.50
Only Memories Remain $.50
Jim James: Lead vocals, lead and rhythm guitars
Tom Blankenship: Bass
Patrick Hallahan: Drums, percussion
Bo Koster: Keyboards, percussion, backing vocals
Carl Broemel: Guitar, pedal steel, saxophone, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: