Counterbalance: My Morning Jacket – Z

You've got to want to rearrange and keep it off the record, off the record. Unless that record is the 556th most acclaimed album of all time. A 2005 mainstay is this week's Counterbalance.
My Morning Jacket

Mendelsohn: This week, Klinger, we are going to listen to My Morning Jacket’s Z. Released in 2005, this album took the band from being a reverb-soaked psychedelic outfit with a strong indie following to a bonafide critical success, racking up accolades for expanding and polishing their sound. Before this record came out, I hadn’t really paid any attention to My Morning Jacket. I couldn’t get behind all the reverb and warbling falsetto from lead-singer and main songwriter Jim James. It wasn’t until both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone started tossing around platitudes like”Z is My Morning Jacket’s OK Computer“, or “America is a lot closer to getting its own Radiohead, and it isn’t Wilco”, that I decided to investigate further. I didn’t find an American Radiohead. I understand why some music critics might be wiling to make that comparison, lazy though it may be. The record was produced by John Leckie, who had helmed Radiohead’s The Bends (also the Stone Roses’ self-titled debut and worked on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, plus a couple of Beatles solo projects to name a few). Z also finds a band shifting directions and elevating their game, much like Radiohead had done in the jump from The Bends to OK Computer. Was Z it another OK Computer? No, but My Morning Jacket seemed to find another gear, taking their music beyond the ordinary with a renewed vigor.

I’ve listened to this record more times than I can count, Klinger. It is, unequivocally, one of my favorite records from the last decade. I’m not telling you that in hopes that you too will like this record. I’m sort of hoping we will come to blows, but only because I want a little added perspective on a record that I’ve carried with me and enjoyed for all these years. But really, what’s not to like? The soaring, sonic daring of “Wordless Chorus”? The exuberance of “Anytime”? The psychedelic freak-out of “Dondante”? Z is an out-and-out love letter to first to American rock and then to rock in general. I dare you to find fault.

Klinger: Jeez, you’re really putting me on the spot here, Mendelsohn. I haven’t been listening to Z for ten years, but I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to it before this week. Turns out it’s been in my iTunes for quite some time. Did you leave it there? I can’t remember. Somewhere along the way I must have listened to it, got distracted by something else (the Hold Steady, maybe?) and generally meandered away. I recall being strangely moved by Jim James’ performance of “Goin’ to Acapulco” in the movie I’m Not There, and the group’s always been on my radar in a generally positive sense. OK, so Z apparently didn’t resonate with me right away, but you’ll have that. Finding fault though… hmm… I think one of the guys chews with his mouth open, which is gross. It’s probably the drummer.

Nah, you’ve got me. This album is faultless to a fault. There, is that a thing? Is it possible that there’s something about an album that’s so eminently worthy that it almost crosses back over into a whole-grain sensibility? I mean I love many of the songs here, but I can’t say for sure if this is one I’ll dig out again once this week is over. But Z really is the sound of a band swinging for the fences and actually connecting. Sorry I can’t bring myself to come to blows here, but my wishy washiness is as close as I can get to fisticuffs in this case. Z is a great album, and it came along right about the time when all you heard about was the death of the album, no?

Mendelsohn: When hasn’t there been talk about the impending death of the album? Whether it was maxi-singles in the 1990s or single-serving songs from iTunes a decade later, it amounts to a non-factor of useless chatter the record industry used to justify various money making schemes. Besides, a quick glances at the Great List will tell you that the album as art form was alive and well throughout the last decade. 2005 saw the release of Sufjan Steven’s Illinois, Kanye West’s Late Registration, LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut, even the Hold Steady’s first record, Separation Sunday, is in there — although I don’t think you were listening to them at that time (like the NSA, I have the e-mail records).

Regardless, I think my exuberance for this record and your wishy washiness speaks to the objective way in which we all come to music. I can think of a dozen artists I wouldn’t have listened to if it hadn’t been for some random event or weird happenstance. Sometimes it takes a little nudge (or headline comparing them to Radiohead) to spark interest in a band in order to let down our guard and invite the music in. Finding that nudge for someone else can be difficult. Knowing your predilection for rock, smartly written songs, and the synthesis of the last 50 years of pop music, I want to find that spark for you, because at the end of the day, My Morning Jacket’s Z is an incredible piece of music. I can rattle off more platitudes — Jim James and Co. channel the Allman Brothers Band, Neil Young, and the Band through a psychedelic lens, meddling straight ahead guitar work with inventive synth chords to create near rock perfection in the post-Radiohead soundscape. But name checking other bands won’t really help with you (maybe if its Young and the Band, probably not with Radiohead and Pink Floyd, and definitely avoid all mention of Lynyrd Skynyrd).

I would encourage you to listen to “Lay Low”, “Anytime”, and “Wordless Chorus”, the songs that comprise the straight-ahead rock numbers on the record. I would say, give the whimsy and heartbreak of “What a Wonderful Man” a chance. Try not to look down upon the dub reggae of “Off the Record” — My Morning Jacket aren’t the Police, but they pull off the island jam at least as well as Led Zeppelin. “The Knot Comes Loose” is an easy ballad, likable and free-flowing, offering a perfect counterpoint to “Dondante”, the eight-minute ode to a lost band member that slowly builds into a tour de force without any of the heavy-handedness and pretension one might find on a Pink Floyd record. And if you are patient enough, toward the end there is a mournful sax solo, courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel, that always pulls at my heartstrings.

Klinger: OK, see, just at the time when I’m thinking that these songs were all just washing over me in a big wash of wishy-washiness, I flashed back immediately to each and every title you referenced in that last paragraph. In fact I may have already made plans to have “What a Wonderful Man” played at my funeral when I die on November 15, 2068 (one day shy of my 100th birthday, because that’s just my luck). So what I’m finding is that this isn’t an album that needs a whole lot of selling to a person of my, er, station in life. It’s a massive-sounding melange of everything that’s come before, and in that regard it’s got a lot in common with many of the other most acclaimed albums of all time (and I’ll come right out and say this — No. 556 on the Great List sounds about right).

But as I’m listening to this record, I’m starting to develop one of my Unprovable Theories, and that is this: Some large part of the current trend (and I hang out with enough millennials to say it’s a trend) toward 1980s pop nostalgia starts at and/or in the general vicinity of this album. It’s evident even in the Princean spelling of “It Beats 4 U,” but then it carries on throughout the record. I know for a fact that there are places where the band is practically channeling early ’80s Hall and Oates in their overall approach to mellow harmonies and laid back groovery, but I can’t recall exactly which track triggered that for me. Either way, it’s inevitable — the people who are unironically (or at least only semi-ironically) enjoying the music of the ’80s feel no compunctions, because they’re one extra step removed from what was ubiquitous and therefore kind of annoying. To them, it’s all one big neon-colored melange, where light gets jumbled up with the heavy and it all ties into some bigger picture shaped by YouTube and Sirius XM and they have a lot more say in what comprises their auditory diet.

Mendelsohn: I don’t think it is a coincidence that you noticed a little bit of a nod toward Prince. In fact, My Morning Jacket’s next album, Circuital, leans heavily toward funk and R&B with the group naming the Purple One as a major influence. But should we be surprised when artists who were raised in the 1980s start quoting music from their youth? Should we be surprised when artists quote from the Canon? Prince has two records in the Top 50, five records in the Top 1000 and nine total on the Great List. Hall and Oates, on the other hand, don’t have squat. So maybe it is nostalgia. Maybe it is just adulation. Maybe My Morning Jacket finally realized what it took to write an indelible piece of pop music and just connected the dots resulting in a freaky mess of pop licks and feedback. It may have many of the hallmarks of rock and roll that has come before, but My Morning Jacket put their own spin on it and isn’t that what it is all about anyway?