By Christopher Hollow.
My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall (Capitol)
Like Wilco, My Morning Jacket have forged a reputation for chafing at their alt-country roots and challenging expectations. The elastic voice of Jim James has allowed the band to have a crack at a wide variety of ambitious ideas.
Through MMJ, his solo and an expanding production career, James has proved to be an artist with ideas to burn. He’s always striving for new sounds, new ways of expressing himself. And, it seems that no idea is too over-the-top or ridiculous.
I’ve had a push-me-pull-you relationship with My Morning Jacket. I’ve always enjoyed the quieter numbers but have never cared much for the festival set bangers.
The Waterfall cements this notion.
For me, album opener, ‘Believe [Nobody Knows]’, has disturbing stadium-rock overtones. And, it doesn’t matter how many times James intones: ‘Believe, believe, believe, BELIIIEVVE’, it still bends my ear. I want to believe, I do. The song is built on a piano motif lifted from Kraftwerk’s ‘Tanzmusik’. I love that nod. It’s a clever addition and provides an in-built forward motion to the song. But the vocal and lyric, no doubt aimed at cynics like me, has an arms-length effect. Like James is jamming his thumb in my throat with spittle foaming at the sides of his mouth. ‘Believe, believe, believe, BELIIIEVVE’. The phrase, ‘Settle, dude’, ripped from common stoner parlance, is something I might squeak out to try and curry favour and get some space.
Space is where I connect with My Morning Jacket. ‘Like a River’ opens up the album and is the first sign of welcome. ‘Get the Point’ with its plain-speaking crowded wordplay melody, pedal-steel and breakup narrative [I hope you get the point/That our love is done] is reminiscent of a fantastic Mike Nesmith-style song.
‘Tropics (Erase Traces)’, with its tinges of Houses of the Holy/Physical Graffiti Led Zep, is one of the more ambitious numbers that actually works while the falsetto-slow jam of ‘Only Memories Remain’ sees My Morning Jacket at their most inviting.
It’d be a stretch to call The Waterfall a break-up album, but the theme is a recurring one. It’s there in ‘Get the Point’ and ‘Only Memories Remain’ while on ‘Thin Line’, James sings: “It’s a thin line between love and wasting my time.” However, the I’m-single-again rally cry ‘Spring [Among the Living]’ – “Boy, I was ready for spring” – has a camp-full-of-divorced-dad’s-beating-drums vibe about it.
It comes down to this: when the voice goes big, I’m out. When James is restrained, I’m right back in.