Artist: My Morning Jacket
Label: ATO Records
Somewhere, deep inside of the members of My Morning Jacket, there are weirdo art freaks just waiting to get out. These shaggy Kentucky guys have long had some quirky, experimental tendencies, and while this has sometimes led them astray (see 2008’s all-over-the-map mess Evil Urges), it has also given them an air of unpredictability. From one song to the next, it’s difficult to tell whether the band will launch into an epic guitar jam, or if frontman Jim James will bust out his kooky falsetto.
My Morning Jacket’s seventh full-length, The Waterfall, finds the band treading its now-familiar middle ground between tongue-in-cheek neo-soul and rock traditionalism. None of the songs are too overtly wacky — there’s no “peanut butter pudding surprise” or “Holdin on to Black Metal.” Rather, the band’s adventurousness manifests itself in the lush production which sets the group’s usual bourbon-soaked, salt-of-the-earth rock against swooping strings and sparkling synths.
The album begins with the upwards keyboard twinkles of “Believe (Nobody Knows),” which give way to triumphantly clanging guitars. Sonically speaking, it’s gorgeous, although the reverent, inspirational mood would have fit better on a fun. album than it does here. Next up, “Compound Fracture” sports a slippery groove and pillowy layers of synths, chiming guitars and thick harmonies, while “Like a River” slathers its Fleet Foxes-style folk in syrupy strings.
Combine these grand arrangements with lyrics that are heavy on natural imagery, and it all adds up to a hyperreal pastoral sound — something akin to the fantastical, colour-tinged image of a waterfall that appears on the album cover.
The problem is that the ornate production sometimes takes the emphasis away from the songs themselves. Too often, My Morning Jacket sounds out of its wheelhouse — the riffs and melodies don’t make as much of an impression those that appeared on 2005’s career highlight Z, and the guitar jams aren’t as muscular (or frequent) as they sometimes have been in the past.
Tellingly, the highlights of The Waterfall are the most stripped-down moments. “Get the Point” is a sweetly simple breakup ballad that finds James eulogizing a relationship over a gentle acoustic finger-picking. “And then I realized all the time I was wastin’ / Trying to mend a broken situation / Daydreaming of leaving, I only had to do it,” he intones simply. A drum beat enters in the second half of the song, although it works better without it.
Similarly, “Big Decisions” is gratifying unfussy, a crunchy start-stop riff leaving plenty of room for swooning pedal steel and James’ ghostly howls. And closer “Only Memories Remain” is a graceful torch song that’s one of the band’s better soul excursions; it doesn’t merit its seven-minute runtime, but its quietly touching.