Beautifully flawed: My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall
A self-satisfied superiority hovers over Jim James’ lyrics in The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket’s seventh album, which manages to humanise and endear him rather than alienate the listener with a preachy filter. There is something egoistic and yet haunting about the central track, “Get the Point” which acts as a pivot upon which the album gently spins, that manages to incorporate its own layers so the singer isn’t telling a story from his perspective (it’s a familiar tale of being the object of unrequited love from a hopeful ex – all very Harry Nilsson), rather he’s revealing a human frailty. Even as James condescendingly sings “I hope you get the point, I hope you get the point”, the lilting beauty resides in a tragic depth that implies he is reveling in the attachment and likely to miss it for the rest of his life – something the jilted lover is no doubt tapping into. The song is tragic, not because one person no longer loves another, but because we often have to make big decisions based on transitory emotional whims, and we know the singer doesn’t properly understand himself. This layering is striking and lovely, and reverberates throughout The Waterfall as James’ songwriting floats in and out of influences, some working better than others, but still managing to produce a unique product that grows over time in its ability to touch deeply.
This is an extension of the aesthetic trajectory of My Morning Jacket, a band who have always reverted to lyrics about transcendental perspectives on mind/body dualism, spirituality, hope/faith and the roots of belief. There’s no hesitation here as The Waterfall launches straight in with “Believe (Nobody Knows)”, an enormous track encompassing life as we know it from birth to death, drifting down an unstoppable river. This potency continues with the strong chord start to “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)” from which the album takes its title. This track delves into familiar My Morning Jacket psych territory with a strong prog influence within the circular melodies of the chorus – “Again I stop the waterfall by simply thinking / again I stop the waterfall by simply breathing” – an obvious reference to the transcendental meditation Jim James pursues with rigour. Alone, the lyrics imply the neediness of all new-agey belief systems, that unpleasant desperation for affirmation by conviction of everyone around you. However, again, it’s the music that gives the laboured nature of the lyric its wings, combined with Jim James’ beautiful voice that is in fine form on The Waterfall. It is this superb balance that humanises James and applies a great depth to his subject matter that extends beyond just an appreciation of the beautiful. The Waterfall is an album that reaches out, not with its message, but with its raw humanity.
In this way The Waterfall’s flaws become striking and lovely. A couple of tracks – the opener “Believe” and “Spring (Among the Living)” – seem destined for big swelling 70s inspired live shows, complete with bells and ghostly reverb. One can sense a room filled with the sounds. However, the clear narrative of the album is this breakup that one presumes James (the songwriter and soul of My Morning Jacket) has recently experienced. Many of the tracks speak of frustrations in relationships such as the sublime “Thin Line” (another song that beautifully humanises its lyrical self absorption), “Big Decisions” (“I don't quite feel like faking it again tonight / Don't really feel like saying everything is alright”), to haunting aloneness such as in “Tropics (Erase Chasers)” through to the actual break-up songs “Get the Point” and “Only Memories Remain”, which suitably comes at the end of the album’s first part with a reprise at the end of bonus tracks on the deluxe version. My Morning Jacket have framed the album with the triumph of difficult decisions at the start and the sweet soft memories of a time gone by at the end. Whoever James broke up with, she was a brilliant and important muse who inspired him to dig deep and produce as he hasn’t done for years.
The rest of the band, James and Carl Broemel on guitars, Tom Blankenship on bass, Bo Koster on keyboards and Patrick Hallahan on drums, stand properly by the strict structures of the My Morning Jacket style, keeping the spirit close to late 70s artistic vibe particularly with tracks like “Compound Fracture”. Backup singers include Merril Garbus and Brittany Howard, adding to the big performance energy that permeates the album. Despite its ambitious reaches of spirituality, The Waterfall remains an intimate, delicious sounding record that strikes a human chord that resonates inside the question of what it is to be human.