There are multiple ways The Waterfall II should be enjoyed. First, straight through on full volume, since it’s a rockin’ slice of heaven from My Morning Jacket that stands on its own. Next, you’ve got to marathon straight through The Waterfall and The Waterfall II, and not necessarily because they match or fit together (in many neat ways, they don’t). You just need to bask in the fact that MMJ had so many new gems ready to go at once – and return to the time when they captured them all with dreamy synergy. They had no clue these songs would ultimately bring peace and joy years later, during a deadly pandemic, but this album sounds so purposeful and current that it seems freshly-penned.
Released last week with only a few days’ notice, The Waterfall II marks My Morning Jacket’s first studio album since 2015’s The Waterfall – both recorded in 2013-14 in Stinson Beach, California. “Massively inspired” by their surroundings and “a sense of charmed isolation that frontman Jim James likened to ‘living on our own little moon,’ the five-piece ended up creating over two dozen songs at Panoramic House, a scenic recording studio with sweeping views of the water. Having originally considered a triple album release for all of the fresh material, My Morning Jacket ended up dividing the project in half. The second half, while equally exciting, is comparatively more sparse and easygoing than its big anthemic predecessor.
Each band member – including vocalist/guitarist Jim James, bassist Tom Blankenship, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel, and keyboardist Bo Koster – brings distinct contributions throughout The Waterfall II that make you want to shout out their names when they shine. You can also hear fine backing vocals from Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch) throughout the ten-track release. First song “Spinning My Wheels” is the one that recently inspired James – reportedly “struck by the song’s enduring relevance” on a quarantine walk – to release The Waterfall II in 2020. This opener makes for a dulcet transition from I to II, connecting the distinct companion albums nicely. It’s a mellow breather that instills meaningful words from the beginning: “Well, it don’t matter where you settle down / And it sure don’t matter where they put you in the ground / The only point it seems is to break the spell / To love another day and live to tell.”
One of the album’s best gems comes early with second song “Still Thinkin,” an extra-sticky hit that is utterly 1966. With a simple piano & bass-driven pulse, MMJ find that sweet spot: each beat leaves you eager for the next one, and James’ poetic lines – such as “A lone soul hangin’ off the corner of the edge of the world” – have the same effect. Were they trying to add another track to Pet Sounds? Seriously, how did they land on something so magical? In delightful contrast, “Climbing The Ladder” has a quick, syncopated, dance-in-the-grass kind of sound that bares their Kentucky roots. As bright and BBQ-ready as it is, Yim sneaks an important moral into the fun: “No one can believe it / Think it’s for somebody else / But all of the hardest lessons / You gotta learn for yourself.” A psychedelic twist comes at the 1:42 mark, when Patrick Hallahan completely slows down the tempo – like some vintage movie scene about dropping acid – before returning to its galloping pace.
The quick transition into “Feel You” is another tiny surprise that adds to The Waterfall II’s vivifying flow. The song’s longing, gentle sound is less like a crashing waterfall and more like a lazy river. It’s all about Bo Koster’s elegant additions on keys, which give the song an enchanting sound – plus Jacket-y lines like “Whoa, makin’ time, to waste time, to feel time.” If you flipped for “Still Thinkin” like we did, then buckle up for “Beautiful Love (Wasn’t Enough),” because it also captures the vibe of a mid-sixties chart-topper as James leisurely asks, “Why is my bitter heart so demanding? So unforgiving of you? Why can’t I be more understanding? Why’s that so hard for me to do?” Koster’s friendly flourishes make it feel like MMJ are gathered around an old piano performing in your own home.
The funk kicks in heavily with “Magic Bullet,” a standout that was previously released as a single in 2016. Few other bands would tackle a subject as tragic as a real mass-shooting with such a pleasing groove, but MMJ pull it off brilliantly. “Ain’t no way to solve a problem of the streets / With an itchy trigger finger / Servant of disease” James sings over a beat that could start the soundtrack of a cult crime flick. Discussing this song, he recently stated, “What a sad fact, when there are so many episodes of gun violence that you can’t even remember which one you wrote the song about.” Bringing a change in mood once again, next track “Run It” is a more bluegrassy treat. Anyone who avoids negativity can dig the prudent mantra: “If you ain’t too kind, you ain’t my type / I’m gonna run you out the door / I don’t need that / Don’t need it anymore.” Knowing how MMJ’s fans love singing along, his memorable delivery is bound to get future crowds joining in at full volume.
If you’re looking for the biggest rock-out opp on the album, “Wasted” has our vote. Not only is it built on a sumptuous guitar riff, backed by heavenly choir-like vocals, but they keep it going in a fresh new way right when you think it’s over (at the 2:20 mark). Even though the song sounds very different by that point, they end it by layering over the same four-note riff that started the song in the first place. A relatable sense of isolation pervades the six-plus-minute rager as James sings, “Too afraid to live / So you go, on your own / To avoid what’s there.” As rhythmic as ocean waves, the following track, “Welcome Home” seems to reflect the idyllic location where everything was recorded. Previously performed live by the band and recorded as part of their 2011 iTunes Session EP, attentive fans will likely remember its vivid lyrics: “All the colors on the leaves / All the love that comes to me / All the twinklin’ lights are sayin’ / Welcome home.”
Final track “The First Time” is another one that surfaced as a single in 2016, and it’s easy to see why they were compelled to unveil it back then. This moving hymn of a finale expresses a sentiment that was once happy-go-lucky, but now seems relevant in a deeper way: “I wonder where the time went.” Whether you’re an essential worker, or one of the non-essentials wisely staying inside during this terrifying pandemic, many will surely look back upon 2020 and wonder where this whole year went. Now we have a serenely catchy pack of Jacket jams to match those feelings – and of course, tide us over until concerts can safely return.
Article: Olivia Isenhart