Blessed be the band or film that forges a distinct culture amongst its fans. Phrases, dates, and places gain their own special significance and meaning amongst Beatlemaniacs, Potterheads, Trekkies, Achievers, and Little Monsters. William Shatner may have told a room full of Trekkies to “get a life”, but at least the impassioned are enthusiastic about something, even if they are often characterized as obsessed, deviant, and hysterical.
My Morning Jacket’s die-hard enthusiasts seem to be modern day Deadheads, with downloading swapped in the place of tape trading. In turn, these guys love their fans so much that they issued a self-hypnosis series through their fan club, Roll Call, “to help each individual fan reach a state of emotional bliss” with the assistance of an algorithm to sense listeners’ temperature and emotional climate, carving pieces of music to “provide a vehicle for the listener to enter a new gateway of self-exploration and understanding based on their current state of mind at the time”. In the past, the band has also let fans choose opening songs and encores as part of their “Spontaneous Curation” Series.
And so it is that My Morning Jacket seem firmly fixed in the public’s mind not just as My Morning Straightjacket on American Dad, but also as a 21st century Grateful Dead. The music may not be all that similar to the Dead, and My Morning Jacket are a bigger commercial draw, but they do share a similar free-wheeling attitude and approach.
Although My Morning Jacket’s new album The Waterfall was so keenly anticipated that its early leak made headline news, you never know what you’re going to get with this band until you play the record. Every album sounds different, albeit there’s usually some form of psychedelic freak-out lurking around the corner. The levitating “Believe (Nobody Knows)” opens the album and builds from a whirl and tinkle to screeching electric guitar, reminding us, generally speaking and also specifically to this band, that things can be unpredictable. In an optimistic fashion, James does not mention the only inevitabilities of death and taxes, but rather focuses on the positive.
The title of “Compound Fracture” sounds dismal, but it turns out to be close to Fleetwood Mac-esque pop. This is perhaps surprising given the image of My Morning Jacket, but the track goes to show that it’s easy to be wrong-footed by preconceptions. Things turn more serious with a foray into nature through the mysticism of “Like a River”, as James pushes his voice to the top of its register to soak the track in gorgeous, floaty falsetto. The tune develops a pulsating, rhythmic foundation which pulls it into the aptly titled “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)”. This one also takes some time to build but is worth the patience required as again it subverts into smooth and catchy pop. James sings that he can stop the waterfall through a variety of methods which include thinking, breathing, feeling, and believing. It all may sound unlikely, but the song is transformative, with the sheen of late Rilo Kiley.
My Morning Jacket are not always the most accessible of groups, but there are some cuts easier to immediately appreciate than others. “Get the Point” is closest to some of James’ contributions to the Basement Tapes project Lost on the River, and is brutally direct in admitting that the thrill of a romance has gone. After the death of this relationship, “Spring (Among the Living)” positively bristles with energy, opening with a primal howl of joy looking forward to the changes ahead. The band is tight, with the drumming and laser-like guitar truly shining. “Thin Line” is another highlight, like an awesome would-be theme to a ‘70s theme show on acid, with Pink Floyd guitar lines and soul vocals. At times, the music wigs out into difficult complexity, but this is what is in part needed to keep our attention these days.
The Waterfall naturally loses velocity to finish in a grand circular motion; the almost mainstream up-tempo rock of “Big Decision” marks the beginning of the end, followed by the cosmic noodle of “Tropics (Ease Traces)” and the laid-back soul groove of “Only Memories Remain”. James describes the record as “the sound of the page turning”, and as My Morning Jacket repeatedly prove here, all we can count on is change. New listeners may be disconcerted by the record’s wide stylistic scope, but there are many worthy moments which can be latched on to if you stick with it, grabbing one of those hooks that seemingly appears out of nowhere. For the devotees, the deluxe version has five extra tracks, made up of three additional songs, a remix and a demo.