Jim James has become an unashamed sentimentalist. On My Morning Jacket’s 2005 major-label release, Z, the band’s frontman reared his thoughts upward with a spiritual tilt, molding them around godly references. Now, his focus is inward, musing on beliefs that pray for self-realization. As he sings to open The Waterfall, MMJ’s seventh album, “Roll the dice, set sail the ship, and all the doors will open.” Part bravado, part confessional, part purifying, The Waterfall is as open as oblivion, empathy, love, and misery.
What then does James believe these doors will open? Only everything—every little smudged feeling of his heart, head, and libido. In the past, James’ own sprawling tone and frantic approach to genre-hopping have occasionally been reduced to a menagerie of indefinable quirks—easy to like, but sometimes difficult to internalize.
The Waterfall should shift the tide and change that. One quick skim of the track list reads like the stages of love, with songs like “Believe (Nobody Knows),” “Get The Point,” “Thin Line,” “Big Decisions,” and ”Only Memories Remain.” The result achieves a balance that many long-term successful relationships reach, bands included: comfort in the familiar, but with an overwhelming desire for discovery and adventure.
As usual, My Morning Jacket sounds foreign on the first listen, but fluent by the fourth or fifth. The real magic is in James’ voice or, rather, voices: “Compound Fracture” finds the vein between ’60s-era Serge Gainsbourg and Marvin Gaye’s falsetto, and modern synth meets “Heart Of Gold”’s Neil Young. Over a mounting riff, James offers one of his most urgent hooks. There’s passion and hope as he cheekily sings, “Get as much as you can keep around” before “Like A River” flows in, rerouting placid jazzy acoustics with quick-click drum jolts and James’ lacerated wail. A repeated word, “again,” becomes a mantra summoning turmoil on top of heavy fuzz during “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall).” The warbling jittery Led Zep-like guitar underlies the refrain while the song’s parts duel until reaching a bottleneck stranded by reverb. As much as James has a reputation as a burly guitar hero, he brings a folky gravitas to the album’s simpler standouts, giving songs like the tragic “Get The Point” a Marshall Tucker Band vintage hue. Album highlight “Spring (Among the Living)” slams in with slow swelling electric guitar, clanging through metallic chunks, wheeling listeners back and forth across livened rattling drums. A roar in James’ throat is backed by a cluster of horns all swarming in support, like a safety net harnessing all the elements together.
Not all of the record’s songs are as visceral. The tricky tonal tempos that underpin “Big Decisions” don’t stand a chance next to scorched-earth anthems like “Tropics (Erase Traces),” with throngs of vocals so wounded they sound like James would rather push every last groan out of his body than absorb the feelings he’s trying to vent. The decisive moment comes at the end of the record, with “Only Memories Remain” emerging like a figure in the fog: a bed thickly coated with ’70s funk melodies, and vivid contours that sound soothing and firm. When the beat stretches its limbs, the track becomes the most content My Morning Jacket has sounded in a while.
Gripping and in waves, The Waterfall might not be a classic, but it still suggests that after nearly two decades fans don’t know every side of My Morning Jacket. Luckily, they keep opening new doors for us to explore.