Albums in Review 2015 - The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket
My favourite album of 2015 was My Morning Jacket’s 7th studio album, “The Waterfall”. My Morning Jacket is known for their highly energetic live performances, extended jams, and their charismatic frontman Jim James. Their music spans many genres with roots in Southern Rock, Country, and Psychedelic Rock. The band has been active since 1998 and over the course of almost 20 years, they have developed quite a dedicated fan base. Their following has grown so large that they’ve been able to create their own 5-day music festival in Mexico called “One Big Holiday”, which is also the name of one of their biggest hits off their third album “It Still Moves”.
After recording and releasing our second album “From Seedlings to Saplings…” this past year, the whole band learned a lot about the recording process and the importance of having a good producer (Lots of love goes out to our producer, Ryan Pritchard). Since My Morning Jacket is known for the energy in their live performances, it’s their producer’s job to bring this energy and live feel into the recording, yet also make the album cohesive. MMJ used producer Tucker Martine for “The Waterfall” who also produced their previous album “Circuital”, and is known for producing the band The Decemberists’ albums. One thing I love about Tucker’s work is that he portrays a consistent emotion throughout his records and they flow nicely from one song to the next. This makes his albums feel like a unit instead of several pieces put together. It also makes it easy for the listener to let the album run from start to finish without feeling the need to skip or replay any songs. I really feel as though Tucker accomplished this feat with “The Waterfall”. The track listing is set up in such a way that it takes the listener on a journey, using The Waterfall as a metaphor exploring substantial themes such as love, loss, depression, faith, and nature.
The album starts off with an uplifting, hopeful tune “Believe (Nobody Knows)” that grasps the listener with its ascending synth intro, soulful bass line, and crisp guitar solo. Jim James belts in the chorus repeating, “Believe” over and over until the final time he hits this one home by raising an octave and extending the line. This is truly a brilliant song to have as an opener. It follows a similar structure to MMJ’s opening song and title track off their 5th studio album “Evil Urges” and its faithful theme seems almost eerily fitting. How many times have you listened to an album but since you liked the first song so much, you had a tough time moving past it and “believing” that the rest of the album will be as good (We as a band refer to this condition as “first song syndrome”… It’s a thing. I have some examples where I’ve had this problem, which can be found at the bottom of this post). This song is telling us to have some faith in ourselves, faith that we’ll find answers to our questions, faith that we can get through tough times, and faith that the rest of the album will be as good as this opening track. In the end, this hopeful opener is deceiving relative to the dark themes explored throughout the rest of the album.
The title track “In It’s Infancy (The Waterfall)” is the song that brings this whole album together, which is why James used The Waterfall as both the album title and the album art. In an interview with Rolling Stone, James states that The Waterfall “is a metaphor for how life is constantly beating you down, and you really have to take time to stop it and get through.” This is evident in the main line of the song, “Again I stopped the waterfall by just [thinking, breathing, feeling, believing]” but then he keeps returning to the line “The idea was always there, In It’s Infancy” referring to the thoughts he’s trying to move past. These grim thoughts make it clear that James was in a dark place while writing the lyrics for this album. In fact, during the recording process, while moving an amp, James felt a sharp pain in his back and subsequently had to go through surgery for a herniated disc. It’s ironic for such an agonizing event to happen when the band planned to be isolated, removed from all distractions by recording in a hilltop mansion on Stinson Beach in Northern California. The inspiration from being in a serene environment while also experiencing excruciating pain has led to a beautiful culmination of graceful imagery to explain some ominous themes. After listening to “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)”, it sheds a new light on the first song “Believe (Nobody Knows)”. Maybe “Believe” isn’t as hopeful as we originally thought - Maybe believing is just a tool to use to stop The Waterfall.
Some of the other lyrics on “The Waterfall” indicate that James was going through a rocky relationship during the writing process. The song “Big Decisions”, which was the first song off the record released as a single, explores our fears for change and making the big decisions in our lives. The narrator is sick of dealing with their indecisive partner and is trying to influence them to make their own decisions instead of having outside parties dictate their life. This one ties in quite nicely with the song before it “Thin Line”. In the “Thin Line” James feels as though he’s putting in all the work into a relationship and not getting enough back in return. “It’s a Thin Line between lovin’, and wastin’ my time”. While in Big Decisions, he’s sick of making all the Big Decisions for his partner; again putting in more work than he feels is necessary. Even though the song “Get the Point” is before the other two songs in the track order, this seems to be the final discussion James is having with his partner. In “Get the Point”, James is having a conversation with his former lover, confessing that he hopes his partner “Gets the Point” that the love that was once there has faded and is now gone. He then concludes the story with the final song on the album “Only Memories Remain” where James is reflecting on his relationship without any regrets on the love and good times once had and all that remains now are memories. This gives the listener and James a nice sense of closure and the sombre tone in this song is a satisfying way to conclude the album.
“Spring (Among the Living)” is the song on the record that stands out for me musically. Anyone who knows my taste in music knows that I’m a sucker for a good build, which has led me to be a huge fan of the post-rock genre and can also be heard in some of the songs on our record “From Seedlings to Saplings…”. This song is a perfect display of producer Tucker Martine’s magic. He’s able to overlay instrument upon instrument, one at a time, bringing each to the front and then to the background, giving a sense of complexity in a simple song yet at the same time increasing the energy to sound like a live recording. MMJ’s experience playing live shows is quite evident in the writing of this track leaving them room to rock out with an extended jam and an epic light show using the snare shots at the end. Another song that stood out for me musically was the second last song on the album, “Tropics (Erase Traces)”. This one also acts as a build but with a dark undertone to it, finishing with a blazing guitar solo. Again, this is the perfect live song; a ton of room to jam and rock out to the solo at the end, which is exactly what MMJ is best at.
Overall, My Morning Jacket has done an excellent job combining the innovative sounds from their previous albums to create the unique tone found in “The Waterfall”. The themes explored in their lyrics and the complexity found in the song writing shows a real sense of maturity from the band. I was fortunate enough to see them perform some of these songs at Field Trip in Toronto this year, which was the initial catalyst to my obsession for this album. The concert really brought these songs to life by adding the energy MMJ is so well known for delivering in their live performances. I highly recommend taking the journey down “The Waterfall” if you have not done so – its cadence and intricacies will leave you wanting more from these Rockstars.
First Song Syndrome Examples (In the form Artist-Album-Song):
Bon Iver – Bon Iver -Perth
The National – Boxer – Fake Empire
Bombay – So Long See You Tomorrow – Overdone
The Decembrists- What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World- The Singer Addresses His Audience (same producer as The Waterfall, Tucker Martine)
Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down - Pretty Pimpin
Mother Mother – The Sticks – The Sticks (kind of the second song)