opinion by AUSTIN REED
Over the span of his career, Jim James has cultivated a reputation that suggests he always has something to hide. We want to believe this isn’t a big deal.
Because it’s rare when you discover a soul like James'. One that seems to always be at odds with itself, even when sometimes, it’s over something stupid like who broke the Blu-Ray player. There’s an clear sense of perspective and irony, which means that when you witness writhing and pain, you also witness the reflexive urge to find joy in the mistakes. One side is panicked. The other is making a ham sandwich.
In the frame of human psychology, this is barely worth mentioning. “Anxiety,” has morphed from a bona fide condition into something you call an annoying coworker. But it’s a moot point; we aren’t here to see the struggle. What make James’ soul so rare are the solar flares that erupt in the process. They’re like magnificent fireworks, and they always seem to be coming from directly across the street.
This makes for a tremendous report card. “The Bear”, is one of the best songs My Morning Jacket have ever recorded, and that was off their first album. 2014’s Circuital began with “Victory Dance”, a superlative track that redefines dynamics. If you don’t believe me, crank up your volume and skip to 1:08. And every album between? Just as impressive, if not more so.
So no one should feel super weird that The Waterfall doesn’t suck. If you’re a gambler, you’re betting on My Morning Jacket albums. But The Waterfall isn’t just a bet. It’s a signed affidavit.
This feels strange to say, but on The Waterfall, things just seem so together. One of My Morning Jacket’s most lovable idiosyncrasies is the disarray that creeps around wherever they go. No matter how technical the riff, it’s always coated in curious tension. On The Waterfall, that all goes away, leaving a crystalline representation of My Morning Jacket, the band. Production has never been cleaner. Progressions have never been tighter. The adhesive has never been stronger. And Jim James has never been finer.
There’s not a song that My Morning Jacket couldn’t interpret on stage. But album opener “Believe (Nobody Knows)”, with soaring heights and gutter-level lows, seems tailor-made for a Bonnaroo sunset slot. As is with a majority of The Waterfall, “Believe” showcases just exactly how inventive and combustible James’ performances can be. Rare is it when rawness and delicacy are so compatible.
By the same token, musicianship has always played an invaluable role in the My Morning Jacket equation. But its existence was always subversive. The highlight on “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 2” might be hearing James cry out at the top of his lungs that “This feeling is wonderful / Don’t you ever turn it off,” but the heartbeat resides in the stair-stepping keys and the quarter-time bump near the back-half. Sure, musicianship has held a fair share of weight in the past, but on The Waterfall, it gets to stretch its legs. “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)”, is a scene-stealing melodic pick-and-roll. It shifts from grim introduction to cathartic jam to grim interlude to empowering (yes, empowering) anthem to grim conclusion. Bold and exotic, “In Its Infancy”, runs in one track the same gamut My Morning Jacket has spent their career exploring.
Which is what makes “Compound Fracture” one of the most inspiring tracks the band has ever recorded. Though each moment of The Waterfall is a testament to the growth of the band, “Compound Fracture” is like asking someone to say “My Morning Jacket” using only two words. It’s a significant, bold, beautiful synthesis of every nuance the band has come to embody. It explores new, undiscovered terrain using the technology of Evil Urges.
For the first time, we're watching a band with 16 years of experience expose every weapon they have in their arsenal. There are a lot of weapons, but the fiercest and most lethal is Jim James, performing to save himself. Performing to save the moments that slip. Performing to kick his way out of a dream. Or maybe it's not that serious, and this is all something to laugh about in ten years. Who knows? What we can confirm with certainty is that on The Waterfall, we witness Jim James performing because it’s fun. A-