Louisville’s My Morning Jacket has always been a band of seeming contradictions. It can wail with the bawdiest of arena rockers and then retreat into a Southern smoked psychedelic chill. Ditto for frontman Jim James, who can summon deep earthy moans when his songs call for it or sail into the vocal stratosphere with a soul-soaked falsetto when the music becomes less melodically restrictive.
Such a varied fabric is on rich display throughout MMJ’s new album The Waterfall. At its core, the 10 songs are soaked in varying degrees of heartbreak. Some strive to keep a brave face, others already show signs of renewal. But there is a tinge of sadness to all of them. Well, at least that’s the case lyrically. Musically, The Waterfall is a grab bag of pop-infused reflection alternately full of trippy orchestration, synth-pop simplicity and, yes, some quite entrancing rock ‘n’ roll.
“Roll the dice, set sail the ship and the doors will open on down the line,” James sings with a measure of hesitant hope on the album-opening Believe. While a hearty rockish affirmation breaks loose of a gurgling synthesizer intro, the song never evens out lyrically. It’s as if it finds solace in uncertainty (“Believe, believe, believe, nobody knows for sure”).
In Its Infancy (The Waterfall), however, turns kaleidoscopic. It rocks back and forth between an ominous downbeat passage anchored by guitar, Rhodes piano and a subtle scowl from James and a blast of summery pop bliss colored by a troupe of backup singers and an all-too brief steel guitar break from Carl Broemel. By the time the tune heads down the home stretch, the guitars and synths are flying as if it was 1974 all over again. The song then ends with the same moody rumination it began with.
The highlight of The Waterfall is probably Thin Line simply because of how boldly James plays with pop convention. He bends the titles from one of pop-soul’s greatest hits (Thin Line Between Love and Hate) and a retools it into a blackened verse of separation (“it’s a thin line between love and wasting my time”). As all this transpires, guitar lines morph from breezy pop orchestration into psychedelic deflation.
The seven-minute album-closer Only Memories Remain is about as lyrically and musically streamlined as MMJ gets on The Waterfall. A chronicle of love in the ruins, it balances hope and helplessness with a pop melody that builds to a near cinematic crescendo.
Okay, then. Bogie had As Time Goes By to brood to. Now James has Only Memories Remain. Both are romantic laments of unusual elegance fashioned for different times. It kind of makes you wonder, though, what Bogie would have been like if a trippy rock troupe like MMJ had his back.