Recorded at a remote idyll, Jim James & co's seventh sounds familiar but distinctive
In the four years since My Morning Jacket’s last record, 2011’s excellent Circuital, the Louisville band’s singer, songwriter and spirit-guide Jim James has assumed a more visible, perhaps even vaguely statesmanlike status in the landscape of American music.
In 2013 James released his first solo album, Regions Of Light And Sound Of God, to widespread acclaim. Late last year he was one of the select group of musicians – among them Elvis Costello and Rhiannon Giddens – handpicked by T-Bone Burnett to bring the ‘new’ Basement Tapes project, Lost On The River, to fruition. James has, in effect, undergone a promotion up the ranks, from Championship contender to mid-table Premiership mainstay.
Such shifts in the internal dynamic of a band can often prove troublesome, but My Morning Jacket’s seventh studio album betrays no tell-tale signs of disharmony. The exact opposite, in fact. Recorded at Stinson Beach, a remote idyll an hour north of San Francisco, The Waterfall turns easily like the seasons: from light to dark, soft to heavy, from heady psych and heavy prog to 80s MTV-rock, fluting country, steamy R&B and soul. Through it all runs an ingrained psychedelic streak which is organic rather than synthetic, James and Co tripping out on the glory of a sunset, a beach at dawn, a mile-high mountain view.
The sense of California seeping through the pores and into the bones of this music is at its strongest on “Like A River”. With its skipping acoustic guitar figure, skittish rhythm and cascading harmonies redolent of The Byrds’ “Renaissance Fair”, it mainlines its vibe direct from Monterey. On “Spring (Among The Living)”, James emerges, as though reborn, from a hard winter – “Didn’t think I’d make it” – with a driving slab of pastoral psych rock. Harnessing a weighty but soulful groove, after six minutes it climaxes in the kind of high-stakes vocal sparring which wouldn’t sound out of place on Let It Bleed.
The Waterfall is, then, perfectly attuned to its immediate surroundings, but it also seeks to channel a more all-encompassing spirit. Long beholden to TM and the mysteries of the Universe with a capital U, James tells Uncut that the album was propelled by the feeling that, cosmically, “one chapter has ended, the page has been turned to start the next one, but nothing has been written down yet”. This is the message of surging opener “Believe (Nobody Knows)”, the words revelling in the promise of the coming flux, the music falling somewhere between the rush of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and the cheap but potent thrill of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It”.
Several other songs draw unironically on classic rock motifs of the 70s and 80s. “Big Decisions” is an almost perfect retro-rock confection, with its crunching power-pop riff and huge, radio-friendly chorus. Perhaps honouring the fact that Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was recorded down the road in Sausalito, “In Its Infancy” bounces between sleek, sunshine-y pop and more rhythmically complex blues-rock, as though it were a cut-and-shut experiment in welding together “Dreams” and “The Chain”. “Compound Fracture” and “Thin Line” are embedded in plush R&B, nodding to Hall & Oates, the Isley Brothers and Bowie’s Young Americans. Lounging on a warm sound bed of analogue synths and fuzzy guitars, James’s ever-adaptable voice slinks around appealingly in falsetto.
It’s not all cosmic, slightly woolly theorizing. The album’s two most straightforward, unabashed musical moments are also the most lyrically direct, and reserved for affairs of the heart. “Get The Point” is a beautifully unaffected back-porch twinkle. Over supple finger picking, slide guitar and pattering drums, James’s intimate vocal bids a warm but firm farewell to a lover. The sentiment finds a bookend in the closing “Only Memories Remain”, another goodbye song in which “the names and places have all been changed, but the identity remains the same.” A sparse, soulful slow-burn, James channels Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” over the lush, unhurried groove, clipped guitar lines and bittersweet strings.
Like the nine tracks which precede it, the song’s component parts are both reassuringly familiar yet never less than distinctive. It may be entirely fanciful to suggest that The Waterfall soundtracks the shift from one great cultural age to the next, but it does possess a beguiling Janus-like quality, at once looking to the past and gazing into the future with open-hearted warmth and curiosity.
You could easily have called the album From Stinson Beach…
We try to switch it up every time we make a record. Do it somewhere different, and get the vibe of the place into the record. Stinson Beach was like living on another planet. I felt like it was on the moon. Everything is so grand, you feel like you’re jutting out into space. There are giant redwood trees, you’re right next to the ocean, you can climb up to the top of a mountain and watch the sunset on the beach. Every day we were really impacted by the power of the air, it felt special to us. We spent two months there – living, playing and recording. There was no rush, no pressure to complete it. It was real free and fun.
Style-wise, this record is more eclectic than ever.
Music is freedom. It’s there for every occasion, and the idea of limiting your musical experience is, to me, absurd. You’re always growing and learning, and hopefully you don’t repeat the same mistakes – at least make different mistakes, and make them with good intentions. At the end of day for us, we’re having so much fun doing it, I really don’t care what other people’s opinions are. Who fucking cares?
Your personal profile is higher than ever. Does that impact on the band?
We have a pretty free and open environment where we’re encouraged to do whatever we want to do while the band isn’t working. It enables everyone to explore stuff and get their ya-yas out, and when we come back together it’s always a warm feeling of comfort and togetherness and home. We really value the freedom that we have. It creates more of a bond.
INTERVIEW: GRAEME THOMSON
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