For the past week I’ve had nothing but My Morning Jacket on my mind. I instantly fell in love with their new LP, The Waterfall the first time I listened to it—it’s a return to form, and personally, I think it’s their best album yet. The words “return to form” came to mind immediately, but what did I mean? Did they just re-hash old material? No, this album feels new and exciting, and not at all just Z all over again. I knew those were the terms I wanted to describe this album in, but not why. So I did what anyone in my situation would do: I listened to MMJ’s discography chronologically.
I already knew these albums—some admittedly better than others—but I’ve never listened to them rapidly in succession. With everything fresh in my mind, it became clear that every discography is a journey. It took them six albums to get to the point where you can say an album is a “return to form.” Then I began to think of other bands that have similar albums, and a pattern began to emerge: The Arc of the Legendary Band. While not every great band follows this arc exactly, many do, and MMJ fits the bill quite well.
A debut album never feels refined when listened to in the past tense, so naturally the first album is the “Diamond in the Rough.” It could be that this is a feature of the way a record label spends money on artists (i.e. established artists get more of it), but listening to, say, Bob Dylan’s first LP sounds outmoded compared even to his second record with barely a year passing between them. The Tennessee Fire is no exception. The album is raw, full of happy mistakes, and all the while, strikingly beautiful.
This is followed up with “The Sign of Growth.” Most bands fail to live up to their first album, delivering the dreaded sophomore slump, but to move forward is to surpass this obstacle. At Dawn, was no sophomore slump. MMJ expanded upon their sound, moving from the jammy-folk to something much more elegant, and Jim James finally started coming into his own as a vocalist.
Most bands, though, are remembered for their third and fourth albums, “The Breakthrough” and “The Icon” respectively. The albums everyone seems to know from MMJ are It Still Moves and Z, and this rule holds fast for so many bands. Wilco has Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; The Replacements have Let It Be and Tim*. These albums represent the nexus of creativity and popularity, and will remain the touchstones for future generations.
You’re probably thinking right now: but what about A Ghost is Born, isn’t that a great album? Yes it is, but it marks a period of experimentation for Jeff Tweedy in which he sought to see how far he could push his limits and that of his fans. It’s the most self-indulgent period of an artist’s career (see Tweedy’s 15 minutes of white noise), and both Evil Urges and Circuital fit that bill. These types of albums are necessary for an artist, and sometimes they can even become Advanced**, moving far ahead of their fans.
The first time through their two experimental albums, I’ll admit I was unimpressed, but through revisiting them I was impressed by how wrong I was to dislike them. Such is the redemptive power of the “Return to Form.” Like the Beatles’ straight up Rock & Roll on Abbey Road or Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, something feels so good about an artist doing what they do best. This is where MMJ is with The Waterfall, and boy is it good. It borrows shades of the previous six albums, what one might call experience; something we never expect artists to gain.
Starting with “Believe (Nobody Knows),” they throw in Terry Riley-esque trilled synths, layered over a gorgeous vocal track that only Jim James is capable of. Gone are the plaintive Appalachian chants that marked the early albums, those fell by the wayside in 2011, now the words pour out in exult, a biblically-sized “believe, believe, Believe!” It takes its time to build the song, exploding by the end, and all that are left is the ashes that begin “Compound Fracture.”
This one is a hell of lot more R&B than they would have dared on earlier albums, and the first of three on the album. It’s not necessarily a new direction, but some undiscovered country they’ve been travelling to this entire time. For a band iconic for its guitar driven sound, this is the second time the keyboards shine. The star here, though, is the thumping back beat to this song which provides the perfect backdrop to lead up to the moment when James sings “For who knows how long.” It’s magic, pure and simple.
“Like A River” does more of the same by sounding at once like something they’ve done before and something completely new. The guitar line confounds by sounding slightly exotic, but also like something Lindsey Buckingham wished he wrote in 1974. The shades of Fleetwood Mac flow through the next song “In It’s Infancy (The Waterfall),” whose easiest comparison might be “The Chain” from Rumours. It’s a multi-faceted affair that takes a look at the same place from a couple different vantage points, linked only lyrically.
“Get the Point” is the most vintage MMJ, but shows all wisdom of years when James sings “I wish you all the love in this world and beyond,” reaching a blue note straining to the chorus, “I hope you get the point, /the love is done.” “Spring (Among the Living)” rollicks through the most modern of their songs feeling mathematical, a digital reprieve, closing out with a Dark Side of the Moon howl. “Thin Line” refreshes the palate, by returning to the soulfulness of “Compound Fracture.” The guitar solo, here and on other songs, ring true to every other MMJ album, doing the balancing act of southern rock, metal, and jam band all at once, but then again, that is My Morning Jacket.
The standout of the album is “Big Decisions,” a fucking awesome song. It is everything you want from MMJ—a song as big as James’ hair, a chunky chorus, a hint of melancholy. All the elements merge perfectly, the weight of the song resting on a rolling drum beat, while the keys (ever present on this album) stream lightly. It’s just so fucking awesome.
MMJ close the album on a mellow note with a pair of slow burners. “Tropics (Erase Traces)” feels a bit like Zeppelin’s more mystical side, and “Only Memories Remain” completes the trio of R&B inflected songs (The dual guitar riff is smooth like room temperature butter). “Only memories remain,” James sings, probably to the same lost love that many of the songs seem to be written to, but it speaks to the larger theme of the album, the persistence of time.
James told Rolling Stone, the title “is a metaphor for how life is constantly beating you down, and you really have to take time to stop it and get through.” I see it a little differently: Every band starts out a diamond in the rough, and it takes the constant struggle of making it as an artist, to grow, to break-through, to make iconic albums, to experiment, and discover what was always there after all those layers are peeled off. The Waterfall is the polished effort that is the result of “The Arc of the Legendary Band.” And it’s astounding what is asked of great bands like My Morning Jacket; to come out with great album after great album, and what’s even more impressive for artists like them is that they exceed our expectations, for better and worse, time and time again. Where they go from here is up to them, but they will be sure to take legions of fans with them.
Get The Waterfall here
* Other third and fourths (I’m sure there’s more):
The Clash; London Calling & Sandinista!
David Bowie; Hunky Dory & Ziggy Stardust
(not counting the debut which sounds nothing like him)
Death Cab for Cutie; Transatlanticism & Plans
Joni Mitchell; Ladies of the Canyon & Blue
Kanye West; Graduation & 808s & Heartbreaks
Neil Young; After the Gold Rush & Harvest
Radiohead; OK Computer & Kid A
Talking Heads; Fear of Music & Remain in Light
The White Stripes; White Blood Cells & Elephant
The Smiths; The Queen is Dead & Strangeways Here We Come
**See Jason Hartley’s Advanced Genius Theory
Article: Christopher Gilson