A few years ago, Steve Hyden at The A.V. Club came out with a new method of defining an artist's greatness. A group only passes the test if they have, at some point in their career, put together a string of five consecutively albums without a clunker. It's effective, and lots have jumped on board (myself included), partly because it's so surprisingly difficult to find groups that pass. Notables to have failed the test, according to Hyden, include Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Now, that doesn't mean that Dylan and the Stones aren't great. This is a different type of measure.
With "The Waterfall," released in March 2015, My Morning Jacket now belongs to the club. Granted, lots of folks didn't love 2008's "Evil Urges," but for me, excellent songs like the title track, "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream," and "I'm Amazed" save it from the curious disaster of "Highly Suspicious" and the overall clunkiness of the record. For me, at least, it's not great, but there are some really awesome songs, and it's good enough. Each of the other albums in their most recent five ("It Still Moves," "Z," and Circuital") absolutely qualify as well above average, and "Z" is one of the best albums of the 2000s. Check out "Wordless Chorus" above. Seriously good stuff.
"The Waterfall" is good. Good enough to not disqualify My Morning Jacket from passing the test, at least. But beyond that, it doesn't do much. It's not terribly adventurous - there's no question that MMJ rock, and they deserve every bit of the praise their impressive body of work gets, but this most recent addition falls short of the truly terrific "Z" or the dreamy "At Dawn" (2001). Let's dive in.
The prolonged metaphor introduced in the record's title is rather heavy-handed - life beats you down, everyone - and with song titles like “Like a River,” “Big Decisions,” and “Only Memories Remain,” there isn’t too much guess-work to be done here. And what’s with the parentheses? Four of the record’s 10 songs contain a parenthetical addition, and it comes off as a crutch. It cheapens the look of the record, and the cover, which may as well have come straight from Instagram, doesn’t help either.
Throughout, in fact, the lyrics are ultra-simple, sometimes impinging on the record’s overall quality. “If you’re too soft, you will get burned”; “Believe, nobody knows for sure”; “Boy, I was ready for spring / It’s beauty changes / Changes everything.” This is well short of terrific songwriting, to say the least.
It’s easy to be overly critical. But the reality is that we love My Morning Jacket for the music. Not for the song titles, not for great album covers (remember “It Still Moves’" enormous brown bear?), not for groundbreaking songwriting, but for the music. For the skillful, artful album composition. “The Waterfall” is no exception.
“In its Infancy (The Waterfall)” stands out [linked above]. Here, James shows off his depth as a musician. We get his shudderingly deep capabilities in the beginning on the first utterance of the title, and the rest of the song continues in the same impressive vein, and while we again are served a heavy dose of metaphoric cliche (“The waterfall, can it be stopped?”), the chorus actually offers some pleasantly muted advice:
Again I stop the waterfall by simply thinking Again I stop the waterfall before my breathing Again I stop the waterfall by finally feeling Again I stop the waterfall by just believing
It feels like a chorus, but it goes beyond musically and lyrically. This is MMJ at their best, and it’s nice to see, especially given its convenient and wise placement the middle of the album. The memorable “Bermuda Highway” from the 2001 record is recalled with “Get the Point,” another beautiful demonstration of James’ finger-picking and delightfully delicate, almost nervous vocal quality. The harmonies and melodic, wordless moans that Jim James has managed to own for years come through nicely in tracks like “Like a River”. Fortunately (and predictably), these guys haven’t forgotten how to rock; “Spring Time (Among the Living)” and "Big Decisions" almost feel like they might belong on 2010’s riff-heavy “Circuital”. The finale, "Only Memories Remain," also has the group at their cohesive best. The most well-balanced track on the album, it features everything good about My Morning Jacket: moving bass, great harmonies, strong and daydream-inducing riffs.
My Morning Jacket's seventh full-length studio album, "The Waterfall" is worth your time. If you know the group, it won't disappoint, though it may not jump to the top of your list, either. If you're just checking them out for the first time, it's not a bad introduction to the groovy, blues-y bass and Jim James' consistent excellence - but you're best off really exploring some earlier work.