I love these boys.
Although 2001’s At Dawn rarely left my stereo when I first picked it up, it wasn’t until I went out to catch My Morning Jacket open for Ben Kweller that I really got knocked on my ass with awe. Of course, having heard nothing about their live show, I was somewhat surprised to hear bruisingly amped up renditions of my favorite At Dawn tracks. Even more astounding, the music was belted out with hair band theatrics like the rhythm guitarist hanging from ceiling beams or wildly fingering his frets from the pedestal of speaker stacks. Although the live translation was drastic, it remained faithful to My Morning Jacket’s core: enormity. Thankfully, nothing has been lost in their transition to the big league teat of a major label record deal.
Whereas At Dawn unspooled into one seamless skein of country night dream, It Still Moves augments the rippling ambience with raucous moments of unraveled jamming and bolder, more openly classic rock crescendos. My Morning Jacket have always been a band smitten with the horizonless grandeur of old school stadium rock mixed with big rig country. But they’ve also always seemed to have a healthy respect for the mood of ole timey gospel. Whether it’s the Dennis Hopper Christian revisionism of “Easy Morning Rebel” or just the overall churchiness of their more contemplative moments, it’s hard not to see My Morning Jacket as a band steeped in the practice and sounds of reverence. There are certainly times when I listen to them that I can’t help but wonder if Jim James wouldn’t rather be compared to Sam Cooke than Neil Young.
Despite the presence of the muscular cock rock peaks that were formerly sequestered to their live sets, much of MMJ’s spacious sense of grace is unnervingly intact. Album closer, “One in the Same”, one of the most stripped-down tracks on It Still Moves stretches magnificently over spare chords and Jim James voice swinging in out like a bare light bulb on a frayed chord. “I Will Sing You Songs”, in a breezily sprawling nine minutes, takes trickling guitars and drifts them under Jim James ambling pierce. “Golden” wraps harmonies that slide right through you, soft brushed drums, and lazy finger pickin’ around James’ drunkard lament (“people always told me, that bars are dark and lonely”). It’s these lumbering moments of hypnotic, drawling ease that perpetually render me stilled.
The faster, moonshined rock epics border on the kind of indulgent radio classics that leave you banging your head in the car, singing out of your range, and drinking with more swagger than your body can actually handle. “Dancefloors” with its skipped rhythm guitar riff that sounds like they’re crashing into the rest of the song, is by far the catchiest and most over-the-top album track. The tidal riff smacks are bound to keep your head nodding through sheer kinetic punch. Although, even I have to admit that the addition of Memphis horns during the protracted spazz out ending sounded a little too much like the Saturday Night Live house band cutting loose. “Run Thru” takes a slow, grinding pace and ends up spinning it out of control into what sounds like a Black Sabbath free-for-all. Similarly, “One Big Holiday” stakes out hard rock claims with an opening mess of riff frenzy which then launches into Jim James soaring voice declaring “Wakin up feeling good and limber”. What makes My Morning Jacket’s sound so compelling is their ability to build these complex, skyscraping tracks that cycle in and out of chaos, usually opting for a gentle, post-climactic letdown to round things out.
Some who will remain nameless have criticized James’s lyrical bent as elliptically cryptic, or more succinctly as: a bunch of bullshit with poetic pretensions. But those unnamed NPR critics are basically accusing the band of not being some other band, which is just a critic’s way of weathering the general indifference of the people they write about. My Morning Jacket have always been more than the sum total of their influences, never claiming to recreate Neil Young’s radical redneck portraits of bitterly shit-kicked Americana. They’re a band that worships heavily at the altar of star flung atmospherics and James’s lyrics have always been mostly just cadence for the unleashed swell of his voice. What’s more, he’s not that bad at it. James is not a storyteller as much as he seems to be a lyricist who soaks in moments and then jots down impressions that are given the force of depth through the instrumentation. It’s impossible for me to hear the lyrics as separable from the melody, the moody drunk guitar work, and the Coney Island keyboards. And more than every once in a while he entirely hits it square, like the albums’s very first line in “Mahgeetah”: “Sitting here with me and mine, all wrapped up in a bottle of wine”.
It’s impossible to know whether or not our present opinions will weather an uncertain future. Especially with me, since I tend to react out of passion and extremity and only soften my opinions as reality gradually erodes their obvious overshot. Though, I have a dark gift for successfully denying that I, at any point, held extreme or roughly drafted beliefs. But I firmly believe that bands like My Morning Jacket don’t come along every day. It Still Moves gorgeously culminates a group with an untainted history of stellar releases. I’m going to keep seeing them every time they breeze through this city and keep vicariously living out my fantasy of being a road weary mountain man and a budding rock and roll hero.