[23 September 2009]
Oh, the folk collaboration. Often, the end result of locking three or more egos in a room to record music is a halfhearted haze of various drugs and alcohol. Remember all those car metaphors from the first Traveling Willbury’s record? That album was enjoyable because of its jocose attitude, but Monsters of Folk, a collaboration between Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, is something altogether more serious. After their 2004 tour trading off each other’s songs as well as the occasional Dylan cover, it was inevitable that these three titans—with the undeniable Mike Mogis tagging along to craft the group’s sound and keep the self-images in check—would find time to record an album. It’s hard not to be wary of “superstar” collaborations, but Monsters of Folk is a shockingly good album.
Opening with the surprisingly trip-hop influenced “Dear God”, each singer lays out their part: Jim James—“trying hard to reach” the deity—the all knowing; M. Ward, witnessing God move mountains, the all seeing; Conor Oberst, fantasizing about touching the biblical Father, the over-sexualized all feeling. This slow dirge of a song is the last time on the album that each voice will act alone. From here, the singers transform from three solo musicians into a band. It’s strange to hear these distinct voices give up their huge singular presence to become collaborative. Indeed, it’s often difficult to tell who’s singing what. They trade off lines like The Byrds and harmonize like Lennon and McCartney.
“It takes a lot of hope to grieve,” Ward snarls on “Gold Coast.”
“The worst part is the way those thoughts can please you,” Oberst responds.
“Hold out your hand,” the three shout in unison. “Say please.”
They play off of one another, giving up authority at times, only to gain it back later in a constant shift of the spotlight. The music is, as one would hope but not necessarily expect, the synthesis of My Morning Jacket, Bright Eyes, and M. Ward. Chugging and relentless like the latter, with Oberst’s characteristically caustic, judgmental smirk, drenched in the murkiness of James’s massive reverb.
Rather than compete for power, the three allow each other to inspire the best out of one another. These are careers that have been decidedly mixed most recently, and yet together, these voices give off strength. Oberst retreats from his anxiety-ridden music of late, returning to his highly dramatic confessions—“the love we made at gunpoint wasn’t love at all,” he sings on “Temaxcal”—James becomes manically self-conscious, and Ward’s uniform calm keeps the music from falling apart.
It feels like listening to confidence being restored in three voices that were losing their edge. Songs like “The Right Place”, and “Baby Boomer” are structured traditionally—straddling the rootsy line between folk, country, and blues—but the three sound so assured in what they’re playing, that these forms seem to have been created by their own hands. No, there’s nothing different happening sonically, but it hardly matters when they have the audacity to scream, with the self-assurance of a couple of teenagers playing in their first band, “If I was ever king I would buy a censorship / Where the only books upon the shelves were the ones that I had writ.” All three of these artists have grown up through their music, but it’s not until this album that they have sounded excited at their still-fresh maturity.
It’s hard not to take Monsters of Folk seriously, and if the album has a fault, it’s that its ambitions get a little too heavy sometimes. James in particular becomes carried away, having the wretched foresight to sing words like “How many licks does it take to get to the center where there’s somethin’ sweet?” But his grandiose claims result in two of the albums more powerful moments—the ecstatic “Losin to Head”, and the elegiac “His Master’s Voice”. “You’re only gonna hear what you want to hear,” James sings in the latter, while his bandmates shout over top of him, essentially throwing critical anxiety out the window. It’s a superfluous sentiment, however. It would be hard to listen to Monsters of Folk and not hear a gorgeous album.