Although they’ve never quite garnered the widespread attention and acclaim of contemporaries like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, over the past decade and a half Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket have quietly put together a body of work that warrants them a place in the highest echelons of modern American independent music. Ever since their 1999 debut The Tennessee Fire, the band have expertly blended folk, country and space rock into a heady brew of Southern gothic capable of concocting both sublime beauty and oppressive drama in equal measure.
2011’s Circuital was up there with their best work and now Jim James and company are back again with The Waterfall, which maintains their high standards. Rather like Neil Young (whose influence is deeply rooted within their sound) My Morning Jacket have always embraced two distinct styles – soft, harmony inflected acoustic balladry and epic, ragged guitar psychedelia. But while the Canadian maestro has generally recorded full albums in entirely one style or the other (think Harvest Moon and Ragged Glory for example, although Rust Never Sleeps is the exception that proves the rule) James’s men have typically preferred to offer up a mixture of both in the same collection and The Waterfall by and large follows this tried and tested pattern.
Believe (Nobody Knows) kicks the album off on a stridently uplifting note, with spiralling synthesisers and a joyous vocal from James, who implores us to “roll the dice, sail the ship, and all doors will open”. With its searing electric guitar riffs and simple chord progressions, it’s by no means the most subtle song the band has ever recorded, but it certainly gets your attention from the off.
Compound Fracture continues in a similar vein, with a shuffling rhythm, falsetto vocals and further use of crunching guitars and synths recalling the glam rock rather than folk rock of the ’70s – not entirely successfully. It’s only with the eerie acoustics of third track Like A River that we encounter the more familiar ambience we associate with quintessential My Morning Jacket for the first time.
Get The Point is one of the highlights of the album: a beautiful, timeless slice of country-tinged storytelling, it recalls the best work of Harry Nilsson with its blissful simplicity. A poignant farewell to a relationship that’s run out of steam, when James softly croons “I wish you all the love in this world and beyond… I guess you get the point our love is done” the sentiment is as stark as the melody is gorgeous.
In contrast, “Spring (Among the Living) was created by James dissecting then overlapping different elements of a conventionally recorded track on his laptop to produce an ever-shifting sound collage, with different elements fading in and out of the mix. While it’s perhaps understandably not the smoothest listening experience, it proves that on their seventh album, My Morning Jacket still have plenty of new ideas.
The Waterfall’s last few tracks are consistently strong. Thin Line is the kind of coruscating, sweeping guitar rock the band has done so well ever since their earliest albums, while Big Decisions is perhaps the most lyrically acerbic song here, with James voicing the frustrations many of us have from time to time with prevaricating friends as he snarls “what do you want me to do, make all the big decisions for you?” Tropics (Erase Traces) perfectly distills the West Coast vibe of Déjà vu-era Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young before the final track, Only Memories Remain – all cooing vocals and deliciously languid guitar work – glides along sedately for seven minutes to bring proceedings to a close.