Release Date: July 10, 2020
The first trip over The Waterfall in 2015 was a comfortable, if not sleepy ride. The landing was soft with a return to the band's trademark sonic weightlessness, countrified arpeggios, and soaring vocals, which brought bastions of bohemians to their shows in the early 2000s. In this regard, The Waterfall was a refreshing yet largely forgettable trip down the river. For me, The Waterfall II stays in the groove, yet takes more chances. Although these songs were conceived and recorded in the same sessions at Stinson Beach, California, in 2015, there's something about II that feels more carefree and unhinged.
Such is the nature of My Morning Jacket fandom. One man's Tennesse Fire is another man's Circuital. The taste of their followers is diverse, and much like The Grateful Dead, it is rare that any two fans agree on their best album. My personal belief that Evil Urges is among their best work is shared by few and ridiculed by others. No matter where you stand, all MMJ fans will agree, their studio work is but a framework for their live performances. Listening to The Waterfall II, I couldn't stop imagining what these songs would sound like live and in living color.
What comes off the record as cautious and cliched refrains paced with pauses and pulses of electric guitar, comes off live as a rocketship toward another sonic dimension. The pacing and texture of the studio work allow for experimentation on stage. The pauses are filled will blazing guitar solos, the cliches ring like a bell of truth in the night. The band's chemistry forms and a masterclass jam band emerges and resonates.
One such song from The Waterfall II is the brilliant "Wasted," which comes upon you like a sunrise saturating the listener in light and sound. A chorus of "Ohhh" s punctuate a series of deep riffs before the prophetic vocals of Jim James ride over it all. "You've been wasting too much time lately. You've been gone. An illusion then, but one more pressing." At 2:42, a guitar solo kicks in that will make you stand up to absorb the glory imagining the band 20 feet away from you on stage on a hot summer night. When the demons are exorcised, you'll feel the air grow colder and watch the sun as it sets in the distance. Few bands hold such power.
"Beautiful Love (Wasn't Enough)" keeps the freewheeling spirit going. The soulful lyrics strike a nerve, and the guitar work, which sounds like new sneakers twisting on a wooden gymnasium floor, is unlike anything I've ever heard.
"Magic Bullet" borrows a funk groove that Bootsy Collins would be proud to lay down. Again, a squealing guitar takes over the show mid-way, and the completely takes over as the song fades to black. "Run It" adds a gospel chorus over a dancing piano melody. "Can't try much harder to get back to water, gonna get back hotter, get back, get back to water. Set my mind free."
There are other strong tracks on this album, yet these four stand out as the gems. They are innovative, and if they sound this good on the album, I can't wait to hear them live. Some sleepier Jim James solo-ey type tracks found their way onto the record, and that's to be expected. You can't have the chicken without the grits. If I had my way, I'd keep James focused on collaborating with this skill group of musicians that have built undeniable chemistry and sound unique and incredible, rather than chasing ideological butterflies in the church of his solo career.
Overall, I'm thankful that these songs have been packaged and released. My Morning Jacket sounds as powerful and innovative as ever. The band toured in the summer of 2019, and James described the shows as among his favorite MMJ performances. He said the group worked through some of their personal issues in advance of the shows. More good news coming out of this release is James announcing the band has a fresh full-length, all ready to go. Keeping true to its live performance prowess, it's been said that the new album won't be released until the band can tour immediately behind it. This will eventually happen!
- Tom Endyke | Guitar & Pen