First Impressions: My Morning Jacket, “The Waterfall”

The waterfallWe’ve lost the thread on My Morning Jacket; we’ve focused so much on their growing pains that we’ve neglected their actual growth. Few will argue that Evil Urges wasn’t touch-and-go, its funk affectations fitting the grizzled rock and rollers like last year’s Halloween costume. Circuital had the faint air of desperation, a scramble toward safety, making it more consistent but less fun than the record it overcorrected. And now there’s The Waterfall, the narrative of which seems to be My Morning Jacket settling back into being My Morning Jacket. But actually, that’s just part of the story; the rest of it is what an accomplished band they have become, how casually virtuosic their writing and playing, how ably they’ve honed their craft and absorbed AM pop and classic rock tropes into something with real character to it. The Waterfall can be described almost entirely in terms and comparisons that make it seem terminally unhip, but the gift of My Morning Jacket is how they take something as unsexy as sturdy craft and keep it sounding fresh. “Compound Fracture” struts and stutters, its funkiness feeling fluid and lived in, not “Highly Suspicious” in the least. “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” one of four songs with a parenthetical title, embraces the ridiculousness of prog-rock (its opening lyric, “the idea was always there in its infancy,” is delivered over ponderous keyboards and pummeling guitar), and it packs all the changes and melodrama of a Genesis song into about half the time it used to take Genesis to do it. My Morning Jacket embraces classic rock’s sense of scope and flair but their songs are idiosyncratic rather than monolithic and personable rather than mythic, which makes them more fun and less garish than The Killers. Plus, they can do intimate well: “Get the Point” is a disarmingly frank breakup song that’s set to McCartney-style schoolyard balladry (think also of The White Stripes’ “We are Going to be Friends”). It’s gentle and fingerpicked but the lyric is barbed: “I hope you get the point/ I think our love is done.” (And gee: Who could miss the point of that?) That song also highlights the record’s rather neat trick of being a singer/songwriter record as much as it is a full-band showcase. Jim James spends parts of it moving on from bad relationships and coming to terms with the fact that he’s maybe not quite as cool or as forgiving as he’d like to be, but he also sings a lot about faith in decidedly unreligious terms: At one point his faith can stop a waterfall. “Believe,” which is as vigorous and rousing as Mumford & Sons’ similarly-titled song is brooding and grey, champions freedom in uncertainty. James sounds great throughout, as he always does, and even with a lot on his mind he sounds amiable—as gentle and approachable as we’ve always assumed him to be but a little more conflicted than he’s previously admitted. He’s grown up a bit, maybe, along with his band, and we’d be fools to ignore it.

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