My my my. Methinks Jim James has been digging through crates of old soul vinyl since 2011’s ‘Circuital‘. There are traces of Marvin Gaye and Al Green all over the place, as well as a smattering of soft rock, while the frontman has clearly been perfecting his falsetto in front of the mirror on a daily basis.
All of this makes for a quite enthralling aural experience, for this is what My Morning Jacket albums have become – an experience rather than the casual, throwaway time-killing exercise that makes up a large proportion of today’s musical output.
‘The Waterfall’ is arguably MMJ’s most surprising album. Right off the bat, ‘Believe (Nobody Knows)’ is unquestionably the most positive, uplifting song they have recorded to date. Such is the euphoria of this gargantuan tune that you can easily imagine it being used as the television theme to an end of season sports relegation battle; an encouragement to those who may be floundering or have wilted – ‘Believe‘, repeats James several times before the final payoff ‘nobody knows…for sure’. Throw all your self help books away. This song is all you need to get you through. One can only hope that Cowell doesn’t happen across it and dowse it in an Elbow-like bucket of oversaturation.
Whilst the latter composition would have slotted neatly onto the band’s previous album, it is anything but representative of their current work, and next we move on to ‘Compound Fracture’, which gives a clearer indication of the subject I broached earlier – the classic soul of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a fine piece, though frustratingly, if I try to sing it, I find myself breaking into cheesy eighties boy band Brother Beyond‘s ‘The Harder I Try’, due to one miniscule molecule of melody sounding vaguely similar. But maybe that says more about me than Jim James…
Thank goodness then, for the comparable tranquility and ethereal beauty of ‘Like A River’ which follows. It has a celestial tone comparable to The Black Keys’ ‘Bullet In The Brain‘ and is a real fillip to the soul.
‘In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)’, by contrast, begins like The Beta Band and becomes a faithful homage to Steely Dan, also incorporating the kind of searing guitar work evinced by Jonathan Wilson on his ‘Desert Raven’ earlier this decade.
One of the finest moments here though is the George Jones meets Harry Nilsson exasperation of the bittersweet break-up song ‘Get The Point’. There’s little to it really, bar Jones and an acoustic guitar, but it’s so effective that I found myself returning to it time and again each time I finished listening to the album in full. ‘There’s only so many ways that one can look at a given situation, and I wish you all the love in this world and beyond’, sings a beleagured James ruefully, as he tries awkwardly to explain to the object of his disaffection why they must part. It’s a wholly unexpected interlude and a tremendous example of the depth and range of the vocalist’s writing skills.
‘Spring (Among The Living)‘ sounds inexplicably like The Klaxons, featuring a female backing vocal not unlike Clare Torry‘s on ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’, then we’re back to the 70’s sound of Philadelphia soul for ‘Thin Line’, but with a crunching guitar sound that recalls Will Sergeant in the Bunnymen‘s ‘Porcupine‘ pomp.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, MMJ venture into early eighties AOR territory with ‘Big Decisions’, sounding a lot like Toto, in fact, yet somehow they manage to pull this off meritorially enough that it feels like a classic rock tune rather than anything wince inducing that the genre was so good at supplying.
The workmanlike ‘Tropics (Erase Traces)‘ starts as though they’ve drafted Jimmy Page into the band momentarily and develops the classic rock machine still further until the seven minute curtain closer ‘Only Memories Remain’ brings proceedings down with a tender ballad that sounds like Neil Young wrote it for Marvin Gaye‘s sadly underappreciated ‘Here, My Dear’ album.
‘The Waterfall’ must surely considered amongst the contenders for Album Of The Year. Yet again, My Morning Jacket have crafted an absorbing record that is so easy to get lost in that you don’t even TRY to find the exit. Brilliant.