The Waterfall

My Morning Jacket

Capitol, 2015

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It only took me 16 years—and a single song played on Late Night With Stephen Colbert in November, this album’s soaring, enigmatic “Tropics (Erase Traces)”—to realize that I should maybe check out My Morning Jacket. (I know, I know. Kinda pathetic. But I have a history of this.)

As most of you reading this probably already know, the group that All Music Guide calls “Kentucky’s answer to Wilco” plays a kind of fractured-and-reassembled-with-different-parts Americana, infused with influences from Smokey Robinson to Pink Floyd. Call it swamp-soul-psychedelia, or whatever other exotic hybrid you can come up with; it seems that the one thing you can count on with MMJ is that they will do what they do in an unconventional way.

That includes previously adventures recording frontman and songwriter Jim James’s lead vocals in a grain silo, and this album, wherein the Louisville-based collective (which also includes Tom Blankenship, Patrick Hallahan, Carl Broemel and Bo Koster) decamped to Northern California to record. The resulting disc The Waterfall is a wonderfully dreamy album full of cotton-candy melodies wafting through elliptical songs that are sometimes about things and sometimes not, but invariably warm and clever and mysterious.

There’s so much going on here that it’s easy to get lost in the forest without focusing on the trees. One minute “Compound Fracture” is combining a slinky r&b groove with a dip into moral philosophy (“There’s no evil, there’s no good / Only people doin’ like they should / Or as they shouldn’t in the light of day / ‘God’ and the ‘devil’ were made up anyway”). The next the band is framing James’ remarkable falsetto with ascending strings and multi-part harmonies fresh from a 1972 Yes album (“Like A River”). And farther along they unleash a dreamy soul tune (“Thin Line”) featuring James’ delicate vocals astride a silvery guitar line that eventually erupts into an emphatic solo, the whole unlikely concoction coming off as vaguely deranged.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Still, the experimental flair of rangy tunes like “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)” and “Spring (Among The Living)” is offset by moments like “”Get The Point,” a sweet, sad, concise and quite straightforward folk-rock ballad of romantic resignation that wouldn’t be out of place on a mid-70s America album. “Big Decisions” has similarly mainstream tendencies, a co-write with Dan Wilson (Semisonic) that achieves a punchy, keening Badfinger feel on the choruses, albeit with slide guitar and strings decorating the edges of the frame.

The album is anchored and propelled by a pair of highlights that hit hard early and late. Opener “Believe (Nobody Knows)” promises an intense journey with a spacey, almost hypnotic opening that builds steadily into an increasingly fervent refrain of “Believe / Believe / Believe.” The lyric is a superbly crafted poem capturing the tension between belief and unbelief, faith and uncertainty. Humans have an ingrained, fundamental desire to believe in something bigger than ourselves, but the difficult truth is, “Nobody knows.”

At the other end of the album, the minor opus the band delivered on The Late Show, “Tropics (Erase Traces),” is stunning, a brilliant, surrealistic slice of prog-Americana. “Out of body for the first time / In a long time / The right time / Window to another world” sings James, his forceful cadence gathering urgency as the music builds. Around 3:30 they move into a surging solo section with careening, stabbing guitar, working up to a crescendo that aims for transcendence, and hits the mark. Only a quiet song could follow, and it does. The album finishes in a sort of spent fugue state with “Only Memories Remain,” the slowest, dreamiest, spaciest Motown ballad you ever heard sung by a white boy from Kentucky.

The word I keep coming back to with My Morning Jacket is odd; it’s an adjective they invite and embrace. But they’re odd in technicolor, with tremendous musical ambition, imagination and flair, simultaneously laconic and compelling. The bottom line is, you’re pretty much either going to dig what they do or not—and I’m digging it. The Waterfall feels like a vivid dream, a woozy, beguiling fantasy travelogue of the past 50 years of American music.

Clearly, MMJ and I will be continuing this conversation in 2016.

Rating: A-

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© 2015 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Capitol, and is used for informational purposes only.