My Morning Jacket: My Morning Jacket
After nearly 15 years, what My Morning Jacket really needed was a vacation. Their glorious studio albums and transcendent live shows sustained a marathoner’s high, never showing signs of Jim James’ battered back, heart, and spirit until it all came pouring out on 2015’s dour The Waterfall. The promised quickie sequel finally arrived last July as a pandemic surprise amid solo projects and side gigs, doing little to quell speculation of a hiatus. But My Morning Jacket were saved by a relatively uneventful few years; they were ready to endure the treadmill of recording and touring, so long as they got to determine its pace and incline. A band that self-titles its ninth album has committed to some serious introspection and My Morning Jacket all but admits they had been living a lie: For two grueling decades, they thrived in the jam-band ecosystem without being a band that actually jams.
Upending their creative process and concentrating hours upon hours of freeform takes into the baggy shape of 11 songs, My Morning Jacket achieves the dubious goal of nailing a “jam band album” on the first try. At least in the way that fans of Phish, moe., or String Cheese Incident typically understand their faves’ studio LPs: existing in a netherworld between “songs” and “jams” until achieving actualization in a live setting. The ProTools cut-and-paste yields some interesting experiments; if the chopped-and-screwed coda of “Complex” doesn’t redeem a placeholder chorus in search of a melody or lyric (“Hey, you get what you pay for/Hey, what are you waiting for”), at least it’s novel. If the jarring key change and extended guitar wig-out during the midsection of “In Color” doesn’t feel earned, at least it’s a break from James’ going on for seven minutes about how prejudice and discrimination is actually quite bad. “There’s more to life than just black and white/So many shades in between…and I wish everyone could agree,” he sighs, belaboring a point with which nearly all his listeners likely already agree.
James is hardly alone as an artist writing with a greater sense of political urgency since 2016 while struggling to manifest good intentions as something worth singing. The sneaky humor, evocative phrasing, and peanut butter pudding surprises of the past have been swapped for deeply felt and completely superficial slogans he might just have easily spotted on a bumper sticker on the 101 on the way to the studio. At his most innocuous, the incessantly repeated hooks of “Lucky to Be Alive” and “Love Love Love” are Peloton for the soul: “The more you give, yeah/The more you get, yeah/Now tell it to the world!,” James belts over pedal-pushing funk-pop, completely in earnest. But while the anti-tech bromides of opener “Regularly Scheduled Programming” wouldn’t have been out of place on his 2018 solo album Uniform Distortion, its accusatory tone reads tone-deaf now. “Screen time addiction/Replacin’ real life and love,” James carps, but how many of us really had a choice these past two years?
In press releases and interviews, James discusses the societal ills in his lyrics with passion and sincerity; for example, he describes America’s malls as teen indoctrination camps for consumerism and colonialism. “It’s like this strange in-between place for when you can’t quite be part of the world yet—and on top of that there’s the horror of the mall and how much of what’s sold there is made through slave labor,” he explains. I’m not sure if anyone could successfully extrapolate those sentiments into a nine-minute prog odyssey without going full-on Muse, and James doesn’t help his cause by opening “The Devil’s in the Details” with a reference to the season finale of Stranger Things. Never once altering its inert melodic motif, the song unfolds a litany of clichés (“I practice what they preach/The apple don’t fall far from the tree”) that mostly fill up the margins, except for the one in the title, which contradicts the entire premise that the devil’s in the most obvious things: capitalism, war profiteering, and…uh, Sephora.
Say what you will about My Morning Jacket’s enduring commitment to seeing their most dubious and whimsical ideas to fruition—they definitely achieved what they set out to do. But “The Devil’s in the Details” isn’t a lark. It’s My Morning Jacket’s centerpiece, even its proof of concept, and lays bare the gap between the album’s ambition and execution. Despite working for the first time without an outside producer and replicating the same painstaking tape-editing process that Miles Davis and Can used to change the course of pop history, My Morning Jacket is their least adventurous album yet. When they riff, they’re squarely within a July 4th classic rock block; when they vamp, it’s the fog-lit, psychedelic soul that’s invigorated their most recent work. In either form, they occasionally hint at their soaring, festival-ready populism, heady instrumental exploration, or fluency with the American songbook, but never the fusion that once came so organically. Even James’ vocals feel siloed off from his bandmates, coated by a flange effect that gives the luscious guitar tones an aluminum aftertaste. For all its hype about a refreshed outlook, My Morning Jacket slouches towards its conclusion, leaving the all-too-familiar feeling of needing a vacation from a vacation.
Buy: Rough Trade
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