My Morning Jacket
ast time they were a vast unbroken vista, the night sky stretched out with reverb, Jim James gulping air and echo as if he were going to fill all that space with just his lungs. Painfully withdrawn sometimes (“I Will Sing You Songs” particularly sounding like a night without sleep), but mostly boisterously friendly, jamming without being obnoxious, singing about bad men from California and “sittin' here with me and mine / All wrapped up in a bottle of wine.” This was rock as I understood it from my childhood, stripped of boredom and as serious as you wanted it to be. Usually albums that take up a full seventy-plus minutes are frustrating (so much fat to trim!), but this time all that excess made sense. I was shocked to stumble onto a video for one of the songs—how could you cut something smaller from this cloth?
The biggest change with Z is not the turnover, two members gone and two new ones to fill the gap; it's not the cleaner, punchier production courtesy of John Leckie and James; it's the fact that this time we have ten songs in under forty-seven minutes. Not to the album's detriment, thankfully; but any of us who found that sheer length of It Still Moves as intoxicating as that ghostly, earthy sound, flying Vs and Memphis Horns, might be a bit non-plussed at hearing that sound turned to more immediate ends.
But “more immediate” is a compliment; “Anytime” shoulda coulda woulda been a radio hit in a different time, “What A Wonderful Man” and “It Beats 4 U” following it up the charts. “Knot Comes Loose,” the only time things get really hushed, is more bashfully charming than anything on the last record. “Off the Record” even eventually lapses into faux Space Age Bachelor Pad Muzak. “Into The Woods” subverts some painfully corny samples and an initially gloomy carnival sound for the only song I've heard where “I went over the railing and into the woods / Where did I go?” sounds joyous instead of lost. Hell, the self-descriptive “Wordless Chorus” ends by going all “Bennie and the Jets” on us.
If there are quibbles, they're fairly minor ones; I wish they'd left “Knot Comes Loose” until the end, a low-key finale for a record that feels a lot more modest than It Still Moves, instead of ending with the extended jam of “Dondante,” which is a bit by-the-numbers. It would also be nice if they'd let things slip out a little more often this time as they do on “Lay Low”; on their other releases “Gideon” might have been a monster, if they'd let it grow to greater stature.
But it's hard to argue with any album that possesses the virtues Z does: James' voice, one of the most astonishing instruments in rock; a band who, turnover notwithstanding, play like they've been doing this for decades; a sense of delight that often eludes young men with guitars; and songs that let you use the descriptor “rocks” without fear or shame. They should be a throwback, but they don't feel that way—even as you play air guitar. It's a sign of how much fun My Morning Jacket are to listen to, above all else, that Z is merely very good by their standards; they could go almost anywhere from here, and wherever they do it's hard not to be optimistic about it.