Labels can be killer. So when Jim James and his scruffy companions in My Morning Jacket are the targets of descriptions like “country-tinged classic rock,” they tend to stick around and weigh against any further analyses of the group’s sound. Throw in recent comparisons to Prince and you’ve got trouble.
But the band goes much deeper than these petty labels, as evidenced on their latest release, the diverse and extraordinary Evil Urges. Although the complexities of this album cannot be expressed in one catch-all description, there are certainly elements of classic rock and strange funk throughout.
In fact, the title track opens up with a lighter jam that turns into a peppy burst of layered guitars and bouncy drums halfway through, reflecting at least a couple mainstays of classic rock songs (stylistic changes and a minimum five-minute song length come to mind). But what critics and casual listeners should both note is that the song is in no way quintessential classic rock. If anything, My Morning Jacket builds off these old elements to create a futuristic-type sound, including what sounds like the electric pulses of a jaw harp fading in and out of the track.
Highly Suspicious is a song dominated by James’ squealing falsetto and guitar hits that sound like they would fit better into a System Of A Down song. As a stand alone track, it does come off as a playful take on Prince. But taken within the context of the album, which explores topics of yearning, ageing, faith, and (you guessed it) evil tendencies, Highly Suspicious seems to surpass the level of the joke song to take the listener to an awkward, fitful environment.
Later, the narrative in Librarian presents us with another attempt to transport us to strange surroundings. An eerie medieval ballad that dotes on the ancient keeper of knowledge, Librarian also brings out the unsettling aspect of vanity in society that leads to eating disorders (“When God gave us mirrors, he had no idea”), with descriptions of the insecure bookworm and references to Karen Carpenter along the way.
To revisit the overarching themes of Evil Urges, the first words of the album (“Honey, it’s rotten and they got us so scared”) give little relief to this situation and others like it on the album, but the title track does hold some comfort in the simplistic resignation of the chorus: “Evil urges, baby – they’re just part of the human way.”
Evil Urges could easily (and mistakenly) be labeled as unfocused, since My Morning Jacket have experimented with such a diverse variety of styles. They’ve grabbed from a smattering of artists – The Flaming Lips influence the weird spacey sounds of Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Part 1; Mr Bungle serves as a precedent to the metal-meets-falsetto nature of Highly Suspicious; Belle and Sebastian could easily do a rendition of the ’50s-inspired Two Halves; Neil Young is present in the laid back Sec Walkin’; and Franz Ferdinand reside modestly in the opening riff to Aluminum Park.
But lying behind this kaleidescope of influences are the evil urges in the narratives – the awkward feelings that we experience along with the attempts to cope with so many issues at once. Any abrupt changes in musical styles (both between and within tracks) only serve to propel these thematic notions that everything is vulnerable; but the band assures us that somehow all these things are OK – it always has been and it always will be like this.
My Morning Jacket have succeeded in bringing relevant themes into an album where many others have failed. Evil Urges represents the creative peak of a band that has shown glimpses of greatness in the past and will hopefully continue to evolve in the future.