One Big Circle: How My Morning Jacket Rebounded With Its Best Album in a Decade

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When Jim James was a kid, he didn’t like his voice. He liked other vocalists who sang in a high-pitched quiver: Neil Young, Dan Fogelberg, Kermit the Frog.1 James grew up worshiping those guys/amphibians. But his own high-pitched quiver made him wince. So, when a 16-year-old James formed his first band, Mont de Sundua, he played guitar and kept his mouth shut. Only after the group’s original singer quit was he compelled to become the frontman. If not for that fateful personnel change, James might’ve missed out on the sound of his future.

“We were recording on a four-track and practicing in the garage, and it was always dry. It just sounded horrible and I didn’t really enjoy it,” James tells me. “Then one day someone left the reverb on the amp turned all the way up, and when I sang it came out coated in this magic. I was like, Whoa! Oh my god! From that point on, I loved singing.”

The reverb wash on James’s vocals defined the early sound of My Morning Jacket, which started as a one-man side project in 1998 and was subsequently shepherded by James through seven albums, hundreds of shows, and a winding career marked by wondrous highs and debilitating lows. At various times, James has been a critical darling, a commercial disappointment, the next big thing, and a dilettante. On The Waterfall, the new My Morning Jacket LP due May 4, James comes out the other side as a survivor with the band’s best album in a decade.

Along with making his voice bigger and warmer, reverb transformed James into a man out of time. His vocals echoed from MMJ’s first three records — 1999’s The Tennessee Fire, 2001’s At Dawn, and 2003’s It Still Moves — like an old Motown hit screaming into the summer twilight from a transistor radio. On the rare occasion that James’s voice was left unadorned, he sounded like the vulnerable, confused kid he truly was. But mostly, his reverb-drenched voice had an immortal, larger-than-life quality. When I phoned James at his Louisville-area home last month, he sounded ancient beyond his years for a different reason.

While James is still a relatively young man — he turns 37 on April 27 — the road has prematurely aged him. Few musicians his age have accumulated as much mileage. All the hard work has earned MMJ a reputation as perhaps the most celebrated live act of its generation. The band’s legendary four-hour performance at Bonnaroo in 2008 is still spoken about by some in the sort of hushed tones normally reserved for boomers dusting off their inexhaustible Woodstock anecdotes. Onstage, MMJ can seemingly do anything, balancing the brawniness of a classic rock outfit with a more modern flexibility that enables the band to draw freely from soul, country, and electronic music.

Neil Young's Annual Bridge School BenefitTim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Even in an era when an oversaturated market has greatly diminished the mythology of music festivals — there’s a Woodstock happening somewhere every weekend now — MMJ does its part to keep the rock show as sacrosanct ritual alive. But it can be punishing work. In the mid-’00s, when MMJ finished touring behind its most successful record, 2005’s Z, James fell seriously ill when the lining around his heart got infected and swelled. (“I felt like I was having a heart attack,” he later told New York magazine.) Health problems hit hard again during the tour cycle for MMJ’s next record, 2008’s Evil Urges, when James fell off the stage during a concert in Iowa. He thought he was about to step on a subwoofer, and instead took a long tumble into a pit. James wound up sustaining life-threatening injuries that wiped out a slate of concerts.

“I feel like I’ve paid a really heavy cost, a really heavy physical health cost, for the years of touring and how physical I’ve been onstage,” James says. “We’ve worked really hard, and maybe it hasn’t been a fair deal. I actually feel a little bit [ripped off]. We’ve had a lot of blessings and a lot of opportunities to do a lot of cool things, but I’ve definitely paid for them all with interest.”

The scars from his past injuries, as well as collateral damage from more recent psychic disturbances, are readily apparent on The Waterfall. Musically, it’s a typically diverse collection of existentialist R&B, nature-boy folk, wigged-out psychedelia, and jam-friendly arena rock. What unites The Waterfall is the theme of resilience in an unpredictable, unforgiving world, which carries through the barnstorming opener “Believe (Nobody Knows),” the flinty guitar workout “Spring (Among the Living),” and the mournful Pink Floyd–does–Percy Sledge balladry of “Only Memories Remain.” The record’s philosophical bent is tempered by lovelorn melancholy caused by personal heartbreak that James, in song and in conversation, will only acknowledge obliquely.

In 2013, James spoke of recently falling in love while promoting his solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God. This may or may not be related to references to broken relationships and romantic discord scattered throughout The Waterfall. Even the deceptively cheery first single, “Big Decisions,” is basically a lover’s quarrel set to bouncy power chords.

When I ask about the lyrics on The Waterfall, James is the opposite of immortal. Pain management, be it physical or emotional, has become part of his daily routine.

“Youth is wasted on the young. And it doesn’t even matter if you sit a young person down and tell them, ‘You’re so healthy, take advantage of it before it’s gone!’ They still can’t hear it,” he says. “I feel like everybody’s got their health issues and their battles and, yeah, mine go up and down. It’s never really over.”

If The Waterfall so far sounds like MMJ’s midlife-crisis record, that’s partly my fault. There’s a lot of hope here, too. For starters, after an extended wilderness period, My Morning Jacket’s future actually seems exciting again. The band’s records lately have been few and far between — The Waterfall comes four years after 2011’s solid Circuital, the Presence of MMJ’s discography,2 which arrived three years after Evil Urges. For a long while, MMJ seemed like an afterthought as James focused on his solo career and star-studded one-offs like 2009’s Monsters of Folk, 2012’s New Multitudes, and 2014’s Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. Those are all good records, but the epic, barbaric yawp that James’s songs take on when he plays them with MMJ was sorely absent. 

The Waterfall represents a welcome (and frankly surprising) resurgence for that yawp, and a follow-up is likely to arrive soon, James says. MMJ already has another album’s worth of songs ready to go, a testament to how fruitful the sessions with producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens) were when the band went to work in late 2013 at the Panoramic House studio near San Francisco. Once MMJ returned to Louisville to record “Believe” and redo “Big Decisions,” The Waterfall finally came into its own as a separate entity.

“The two records aren’t related or anything. I don’t want to put it out as, like, The Waterfall 2 or anything like that,” James says. “I just think it’d be fun to put out another record a little bit quicker than we normally do.”

The upside of aging is that you can figure out who you are and learn how to accept it. From the time James started putting out records, journalists have asked whether he wanted MMJ to be “bigger.” But the answer should’ve already been clear — by both circumstance and design, My Morning Jacket has never fit in. Too jammy for indie fans and too indie for jam-band fans, MMJ resides in a weird zone between too popular for the underground and not popular enough to qualify for stardom.

“We’ve never had a hit single, and we’ve never been the flavor of the moment,” James says. “We’ve never had that kind of blanket government decree that you must love this band or else you’ll be executed.”

jim-james-im-not-thereThe Weinstein Company

The closest MMJ came to crossing over from being a medium successful cult band to a massive mainstream behemoth was with Z, which is when James curbed his oddball discursiveness with his catchiest, most succinct set of songs. In spite of the record’s digressions — “Wordless Chorus” literally had a wordless chorus, and “Off the Record” veered dangerously close to white-guy reggae — Z came out sounding like pop music. When I saw the band for the first time in 2002, it was opening for Guided by Voices in front of 200 people at a bar in Iowa. Four years later on the Z tour, it played a theater in Milwaukee for 10 times as many people. Around the same time, Cameron Crowe hired them to play “Free Bird” at the climax of his misbegotten “Jerry Maguire but with Orlando Bloom” rom-com, Elizabethtown. The movie bombed, but MMJ’s rise continued. By 2008, it was booked to play Madison Square Garden and Saturday Night Live. James, meanwhile, appeared in Todd Haynes’s sorta-but-not-really 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There — you might remember him singing “Goin’ to Acapulco” in whiteface — and took a new apartment in Chelsea. A Spin profile from this period describes James and his bandmates as “looking like … the metrosexuals in Maroon 5.”

Then Evil Urges changed the trajectory of the band’s career. Ask five fans what the worst My Morning Jacket album is, and four will say Evil Urges. (The fifth will loudly insist that it’s secretly the best record.) I’m with the majority on this one, though “worst” relative to the rest of the band’s output doesn’t mean “bad” in this case. Rather, Evil Urges is a good “bad” record — a purposeful mess that essentially delivered Around the World in a Day when the world expected Purple Rain. Evil Urges offers both guaranteed bafflers (like the bizarre Gilbert & Sullivan–ized funk of “Highly Suspicious”) and overly glossy stabs at radio-rock dominance (like “I’m Amazed,” which sounds like Toby Keith after a trip to Whole Foods), none of which totally work. More successful is the two-part suite “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream,” a minor-key synth-pop slow jam with narcotized Skynyrd guitars subbing in for keyboards. It’s the closest Evil Urges comes to conveying James’s state of mind at the time.

“That was probably the least fun record we made,” says James, who admits in retrospect that he was probably trying too hard to dispel MMJ’s southern-rock image. Given what happened on the Evil Urges tour, when James’s accident derailed the band’s momentum and plunged him into personal catastrophe, the prescience of the album’s foreboding title still strikes him as odd seven years later.

“We all have this way of not listening to ourselves,” he says. “I feel like that was a period where I really wasn’t listening to myself and it turned out to be disastrous.”

The crucial difference between Evil Urges and The Waterfall is that James has learned over time to better integrate his riskier impulses into MMJ’s signature sound. So, for example, when James indulges his feathery Marvin Gaye–inspired falsetto on the album’s best song, the slinky “Compound Fracture,” it doesn’t come off as an overreach, but rather as a natural extension of the band’s aesthetic. James is simply better at his job now, in other words.

“I feel really good about it, but every time we make a record, I feel really good about it and it’s always my favorite,” James says of The Waterfall. “Then as time goes on and I look back, I see things I could’ve done better. It’s like the time capsule thing — even the negative experiences weren’t a waste of time. It’s all part of growing.”

No matter James’s improved level of craft in the studio, his primary gig will always be as a live performer. In the fascinating documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, which debuted this week on HBO, a distinction is made during Frank Sinatra’s initial climb to fame about his separate careers as a radio star, a recording star, a concert star, and a movie star. We’ve become accustomed to treating the different aspects of a music career as one big soup, but for MMJ, there truly is separation between what the band is on record and what it is onstage. On record, MMJ is a reliable legacy act. Onstage, however, it can still move mountains. This summer, MMJ will be back on the road, including a date at Bonnaroo, in the hopes of creating a few more mythic moments.

“The band can’t exist without the crowd, and the crowd wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the band, and it really is something magical that people need,” James says. “It’s the thing that the Internet can never kill. We’re gonna have printers to print out your groceries, and your groceries are gonna be easy to steal. Then we’ll see all the grocery stores close, then all the automobile stores will close, and eventually everything physical will close. But I feel like there’s something about being human and being in a room with a bunch of humans, even if you don’t know any of them, and experiencing this musical event together. It’s like this big circle.”

Filed Under: Music, My Morning Jacket, Jim James, bonnaroo, Circuital, Evil urges, The Waterfall

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden