How can the faint scent of disappointment lurk in the air when a good band releases its best album to date?
Sometimes a band releases an album that crystallizes that band’s sound to such a degree, captures so completely everything that is unique about it, so brightly illuminates its strengths, that a follow-up seems almost unnecessary. My Morning Jacket’s third album and last studio release, 2003’s It Still Moves, was an album like that. It didn’t display a lot of stylistic diversity. Not every song was great, and several were almost superfluous. But as a showcase for Jim James’ high-pitched, reverb-drenched voice and songs about finding redemption through love and rock ‘n’ roll, and the band’s boot-stomping yet heartbreaking brand of widescreen music, it was and is a classic.
Therefore it’s impossible to listen to or discuss new album Z without the shadow of It Still Moves lurking outside the room. “For the past I’m digging/ A grave so big/ It would swallow up the sea,” James sang on the latter album — and parts of Z are certainly a departure if not a slate-wiping rebirth. The new album is clean, concise; and, song for song, the strongest My Morning Jacket record yet. The difference, ultimately, is this: It Still Moves sounded haunted and haunting. Z sounds like a band going into a studio and making a really good album. Take it on those terms and it won’t let you down; in fact, it’ll put in hard time on your car stereo.
While parts of previous My Morning Jacket albums sounded sloppy, Z is crisply-produced and markedly more refined, in part due to co-producer (with James) John Leckie. Leckie is best known for two records — The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut and Radiohead’s The Bends. He might seem an odd selection for My Morning Jacket, but read Leckie’s description of another band he produced in the ’90s, House of Freaks, and the pairing makes perfect sense: “They combined Americana songs and atmospheres. They… wanted to sound British, as well as sounding American.” That’s My Morning Jacket in a nutshell. On Z, Leckie helps the band broaden its palette without losing its musical identity.
One of the startling aspects of Z is the absence of reverb from the backing tracks — but, breathe easy, not James’ vocals — on several songs. So, on first listen “Wordless Chorus” and “It Beats for You” are subtle and underwhelming, even more surprising given the band’s recent addition of a keyboardist and second guitarist. Give them a few listens, though, and they’re almost as affecting a Track 1/Track 2 combo as “Mahgeetah” and “Dancefloors” on It Still Moves. “Chorus” in particular has that soaring, multitracked James chorus that simply arouses the spirit. Toward the end, James adds some soulful, falsetto wailing, and even the shittiest day turns into pure sunlight.
My Morning Jacket’s music has commonly been described as “postmodern Southern rock”. If anything, Leckie strips away some of the “postmodern”. “What a Wonderful Man” is a straightforward, Big Star-style romp, and “Off the Record” does reggae the same way Led Zeppelin did reggae — convincingly and with a rock ‘n’ roll kick in the ass, nevermind the meandering coda. “Anytime” is more hooky than you’d expect from this band, with James singing with a ragged, almost Paul Westerberg rasp. And if you’re worried about those BIG drums, extended jams, and Southern grit, “Gideon”, “Lay Low”, and “Dondante” will more than satisfy. And then there’s “Knot Comes Loose”, a gorgeous, gorgeous ballad embroidered in lap-steel, piano and quiet percussion; a song that perfectly invokes that romantic, almost tropical feel you get from My Morning Jacket at its best.
If the band does overreach, it’s on “Into the Woods”, Z‘s musically and lyrically disturbing Wagner-meets-Pink Floyd centerpiece.
Thankfully, on Z My Morning Jacket doesn’t bury its past. Rather, it translates that past into a fresh yet familiar, rip-roaring yet soothing new present.