Album Review: My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
My Morning Jacket records are tinged with alt country’s spirit even when they aren’t entirely indebted to its tone. There’s always been a folksy, small-town feel to the music and the methods, recording albums in a grain silo and a church gym a decade apart. It’s in the DNA; the Louisville band’s 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire, was indie covering country rock. It felt like a jam band performing outdoors at the height of a Southern summer. The rest of their catalog, though sometimes fluctuating stylistically and aesthetically, is imbued with that same warm energy. There’s a song like “Old Sept. Blues” on each of their albums.
They didn’t become the band billed second from the top on a Coachella Sunday in 2008 before adding keyboardist Bo Koster and guitarist Carl Broemel in 2004 following the departure of founding member Johnny Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash. The change prompted de facto leader and singer-songwriter Jim James to deviate from the band’s then-patented formula, enlisting help from onetime Radiohead producer John Leckie (The Bends) for 2005’s groundbreaking Z, which transformed My Morning Jacket from bluegrass-blooded folkies to a big name on festival tickets.
Z has often been called their OK Computer, and 2008’s Evil Urges was the band cashing that check, using boosted creative license to explore even wonkier territory: subdued, pedestrian ranges, soft rock, some heavily feedbacking, blues-flecked guitars, and whatever “Highly Suspicious” is.
Their most recent album, 2011’s Circuital, was more Z than Evil Urges, but not much like either. It exists more as a continuation than a sequel, creeping through eerie but soulful space rock and nimbly dancing around hymnal melodies. It sidestepped previous forays into ska and funk but maintained the original mission: a pursuit of interesting and dynamic rhythms. Meanwhile, as James continued to tinker with sounds from beyond, the lyrics seemed to suggest doubt was the catalyst for his restlessness: On “Victory Dance” he coos, “Should I lift the dirt and plant the seed even though I’ll never grow?/ Should I wet the ground with the sweat from my brow and believe in my good work?” He seems to have embraced the latter on the band’s seventh and latest album, The Waterfall.
The Waterfall is a My Morning Jacket crash course. It’s where indie folk meets alt country head-on. It’s Jim James hopscotching his way through past records with a far more lush, scenic destination in mind. There’s a sort of idealistic, rustic vibe, the kind associated with the landscapes on postcards or “America the Beautiful”. This is “one man penning letters in a log cabin by a pine forest” country rock with stringy banjo-esque riffs and heavy, isolated kick drums. But it subtly has big stage potential, too; the songs, though traditionalist, are equipped for riff-rocking and hair-flopping on any platform. “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)” and “Tropics (Erase Traces)” belong in the band’s epic live sets. The album bridges the gap between the small-town feel and their current top-billing status.
Underneath the stunning sonic scenery there’s a perceptive, generation-bending kind of songwriting about lost love and nostalgia that’s equal parts love letter in movable type and triple-texting an ex. On “Get the Point”, James sings, “I never have an answer/ I never seem to be there for you/ But there’s only so many ways that one can look at a given situation/ And I wish you all the love in this world and beyond … I hope you get the point.” He leads with “I” statements, but there’s a subtle condescension to his tone. It’s a dump job written ambiguously. James does a lot of his writing like this. “For a time there by the sea/ There was only you and me/ In a land that time forgot/ You uttered sweet forget-me-nots,” he waxes poetically in “Only Memories Remain”, reminiscing before snapping back to the present: “Sometimes life has other ideas.”
This sweetly written, often optimistic shorthand, which crams complex ideas into short sentences (“Only get one chance but you seem to always think twice”) or frames them with sketches of simpler ideas, complements the striking atmospherics. There’s a moment on “Believe (Nobody Knows)” where James’ soaring cadence, the clicking keyboard, and the drums interlock seamlessly as he shouts a simple platitude: “Believe, nobody knows for sure.” The frontman howls to open “Spring (Among the Living)”, where accompanying riffs bounce along the outside of an admission of previous isolationism. He croons in a lower register with a gravelly tone suited to the surroundings. It’d be an oversight not to mention That Voice, which is one of the main attractions, and he doles out his liquid falsetto when needed. One of those times is on the elastic “Like a River”, which is probably the album’s most breathtaking treasure. My Morning Jacket harken back to their alt country roots on The Waterfall and create a remarkable vision of the American countryside in the process, one as filled with solitude as it is with wonder.
Essential Tracks: “Like a River”, “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)”, and “Get the Point”