My Morning Jacket Bring the Good Time Vibes On Their Self-Titled Reset
Six years since their last release of new music, My Morning Jacket rediscover the power of kicking out the jams.
If you enjoy this review, please share or subscribe to Check This Out! to receive fresh tunes to your inbox twice-weekly.
In early August, I wrote about the triumphant return of Twin Shadow and his decision to self-title his reintroduction to the music world. When executed correctly, it’s one of my favorite practices - artists and bands can lose their way, and sometimes it’s best for them to make a reboot statement: “here’s our music, and this is how we sound best.”
As we start to close out the year in new releases, I’m happy to know that after an unusually long six-year break since releasing a new album, My Morning Jacket is back at full strength for the first time in a decade.
One of the best bands of the ’00s, My Morning Jacket were untouchable in the first decade, releasing albums of a unique roots, dub, and psychedelic sound (revisit my anniversary review of At Dawn here) and becoming a must-see live act. Spending that much time on the road takes its toll on a band, and by the time My Morning Jacket released 2015’s The Waterfall, the group sounded spent and directionless. Don’t get me wrong, I still thoroughly enjoy that album. Still, when the rest of the songs were released last year from what was initially meant as a triple album, The Waterfall II was full of lethargic material quickly forgotten.
Even more alarming, the infamous live band was rarely seen on tour outside of some summer dates and their annual resort fest in Mexico. Once a favorite band of mine, My Morning Jacket, sounded wearisome when working together. For my money, I’ve found bandleader Jim James’ solo records over the past five years to be more interesting. When the rest of the band showed up on Strand of Oaks’ Eraserland (with most personnel returning on In Heaven), they sounded rejuvenated by working on something that wasn’t My Morning Jacket.
So when their latest, My Morning Jacket was announced, I approached with caution but have come away pleasantly surprised and then some. Recorded right before the pandemic, this self-titled record is a celebratory odyssey and one of a band who seems thankful to get another together in the studio.
“I’ve always loved that phenomenon. I was so excited that we even got to make another record that I was like, ‘this is the time for our self-titled.’ With all of the insanity in the world right now, I wanted to do something as simple as we possibly could. Just, ‘Here we are. We’re back.’”
-Jim James on the idea of rebirth through a self-titled record
The formula works as the band keeps the process to the five core members for this outing, save for some vocal work from Briana Lee and Maya Sykes. Written, produced, and engineered by James, there’s no outside influence, allowing the band to capture their live show magic through returned experimentation and extended jamming. Clocking in at an hour, My Morning Jacket is their longest since 2003’s It Still Moves and is the sound of a band allowed to breathe again.
For example, take “Complex,” one of the year’s best songs, as it combines the vintage MMJ sound with the experimental tendencies of James’ solo work. Opening with a supremely crunchy riff that left me expecting to hear Geddy Lee take over vocal duties, the song builds with splashes of otherworldly synth hits before gearing down into a cough syrup fever dream. This version of the group, once known for headbanging riffs and not taking itself too seriously, is back, after being last heard while yelling about a “peanut butter pudding surprise” on “Highly Suspicious” from 2008’s Evil Urges.
Similarly, “Never In the Real World” revisits the familiar formula with a brand new coat of paint. James has called the song one of his favorite moments in the studio as the band navigated the improvisational spirit of the sessions. As he does throughout the record, longtime keyboardist Bo Koster delivers an MVP performance, giving the shredfest a rich canvas for James and guitarist Carl Broemel to noodle over.
There’s an honest self-awareness of the band’s rediscovered joy on most tracks, starting with the opener, “Regularly Scheduled Programming.” Over a pulsing beat and Koster’s keyboards, James nods to the last decade by chiming in, “excuse me, you know I beg your pardon / for this interruption / now back to regularly scheduled programming,” before cheekily asking, “had enough?”. As each member rolls into the session, their returned enthusiasm is felt in an organic counter to the lyrics addressing screen addiction.
On “Love Love Love,” the ace rhythm section of drummer Patrick Hallahan and “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship has an assured drive that seemed to be missing on The Waterfall. The twosome combos for a propulsive and confident strut that works well with James’ pep talk in the mirror to be a kinder person. It’s a distinguished choice for a second single, one that you’ll find bouncing around your brain for days.
Speaking of correcting past mistakes, “In Color” manages to be one of the record’s best tracks by working as a slower ballad that explores so much territory throughout seven and a half minutes. The last few MMJ records have cooled off too quickly, getting stuck in a folky rut that turned the songs into background music - it’s easy to fear the same would happen again during the first section of “In Color.” Still, under their own steerage, the band can improvise into a cathartic jam that emphasizes the song’s beauty once it returns to the previously established refrain.
Elsewhere, “Least Expected” properly maneuvers through a classic Jim James peyote vision quest. At the same time, “Out of Range, Pt. 2” features cascading taps from Broemel that will have you wondering what happened to the first part (find out on My Morning Jacket II?). The record finishes strong with “Penny For Your Thoughts” with another grooving bass performance from Blankenship, and “I Never Could Get Enough” concludes with a spaced-out jam that reemphasizes the organic spirit of the album. There are a few hiccups, with the meandering exercise of “The Devil’s In The Details” that doesn’t quite fit its footing through nine minutes, but they are forgivable on an album of such highs.
Longtime fans of the Louisville group should be thrilled with the release - so many times, the band’s future has been uncertain in the last decade, and here they’ve made a miraculous return. The record would be a fantastic coda at nine albums in, but it’s hard to envision an end with the band’s rejuvenated sound.
And if you’re a first-timer, there’s no better starting point. After all, this is My Morning Jacket saying, “here’s our music, and this is how we sound best.”