My Morning Jacket's seventh studio album 'The Waterfall', their first in four years, finds Jim James' five-piece band in a psychedelic and pastoral mood. It demonstrates many of the experimental tendencies of James' 2013 solo effort 'Regions Of Light And Sound Of God', but I must admit that I've warmed less to these songs than other critics. Culled from a productive set of sessions in Northern California, this is the first of two My Morning Jacket albums planned for the next twelve months. The tracks are infused with the hazy sunshine that you'd expect from that location, but many of them became background noise to me far too quickly. The material feels comfortable, familiar even, but it felt a bit like wallpaper. Intricate, very detailed and occasionally beautiful wallpaper, but wallpaper all the same.
That description does sound more detrimental than it should, but it is appropriate. Imagine landscapes that sprawl as far as you can see, littered with tiny details that you're more interested in than the overall picture. The term wallpaper may suggest repetition, there's little of that here, however the picture that's painted by James only temporarily catches your attention, that's where the analogy is strongest. To be fair, the moments where the ideas and sounds become less complex and more focussed are among My Morning Jacket's strongest work to date. There aren't enough of those moments for my money to make this one of their best albums though.
The emotional pinnacle of 'The Waterfall' is also perhaps its most striking moment; 'Get The Point' is a simple guitar lament to the breakdown of a relationship. It echoes the understated beauty of Paul McCartney's 'White Album' performance of 'Blackbird', comparisons have also been drawn elsewhere to Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talkin''. The song really is the jewel in the crown of 'The Waterfall', not least because it strips away some of the psychedelic haze to reveal James sharing an honesty that many of us find hard to put into words ("I hope you get the point, I think our love is done"). This is the most affecting break-up song I've heard in a long time, that much of the rest of the album doesn't reach this high water mark remains a problem for me. That's because I know that My Morning Jacket have the tools to prompt such a strong reaction as with this particular track.
That's not to say the other songs are dramatically disappointing, it's just parts of them feel perfunctory. Take, for example, opener 'Believe (Nobody Knows)'. The vocals, guitars and strings are gloriously bathed in reverb to up the ante of this feel-good anthem, but underneath Bo Koster's consistent keyboard part doesn't seem to have been afforded the same production flourishes, which renders it somewhat anodyne. That ultimately just becomes distracting. Elsewhere, 'Like A River' is a beautiful hymn to the countryside, but like many Fleet Foxes songs that it brings to mind, the track reaches a choral swirl and then doesn't really go anywhere.
When My Morning Jacket do hit their stride here, such as the first two singles, you remember quite how magnificent they can be. The Alt-Country stomp of 'Big Decisions' and the Technicolor wig out that closes 'Spring (Among The Living)' are both glorious to behold, but there just weren't enough of those moments for me in the overall picture. I'm hoping the second collection of material from these sessions contains a better balance of those striking details, which will make it stand out from the crowd. If 'The Waterfall' feels a little like wallpaper to me, that's probably because I'm hoping its sister record will be like that rug in the Big Lebowski, something to really pull the room together.
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