My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall: Old School, Melancholy And Sweet

my morning jacket the waterfall jim james featured
Written by Justin Stoltzfus

The Waterfall, the new album from indie-rockers My Morning Jacket, is a bold move back into the past.

aNewDomainThe Waterfall, the seventh album by My Morning Jacket, is in many ways an old-school masterpiece. It’s the kind of music you’d want to hear on vinyl, not just to be hip, but to listen to music the way it was made to be heard decades ago.

You can hear the magic of this album in the songwriting, the instrumentation and the production. While a lot of new indie bands like to use heaps of clean-sounding strings, catchy vocal hooks and fairly standard effects, The Waterfall uses a gamut of growling synthesizers, loopy keys and ambient noises that were invented in the ’70s prog-rock era, and all those tripped-out noises send you to a different world.

It’s noticeable (and powerful) from the very first track, “Believe,” where a spiral riff builds into the sunny groove of the chorus. Front man Jim James, an iconic bandleader with a mystical aura, urges listeners to “believe” — an appeal to the possibilities of the mind that stays central throughout the entire album.

David Gilmour, Eat Your Heart Out

Hop_(2011-08-03_by_Ian_T._McFarland)Some of the tracks on The Waterfall evoke Pink Floyd’s classic sound, like the long instrumental buildup of “Traces.” The song provides an ominous rhythm and constantly resolves on a minor note, which reminds you immediately of “The Wall.”

Then there’s “In Its Infancy,” a heavy and disjointed groove that utilizes deep organs, a heavy amount of reverb and a minor key progression. You can even feel a ticking rhythm throughout, a la Pink Floyd’s “Money,” while harmonic voices groan: “The idea was always there / In its infancy.”

And, as Will Hermes over at Rolling Stone points out, there are a lot of Floyd-style vocals, riffs, orchestration and complexity in “Thin Line.” It’s not strictly in remembrance of Floyd, though — elements of doo-wop surface and the song contains a strange, bent-note sound that’s distinctly My Morning Jacket.

Other tracks have less of this resonance, falling more in line with a folk, almost country (the band is from Kentucky) vibe. You can hear this on “The Hillside Song,” or the Beatles-esque vocal on “Only Memories Remain.” Still, The Waterfall as a whole sounds like music the old masters would have made in studios now shuttered or demolished.

Embracing The Sadness

The Waterfall is also an album about loss. One of the best examples is the ending track, where over a spare beat, Jim James croons an ode to lost love: “For a time, there by the sea / There was only you and me / In a land that time forgot.”

James then posits, in another very ’70s-era tangent, that, in fact, all may not be lost:

As time and space do what they will / The spirit, so vogue, can never be killed / Our earthly bodies will surely fall / But the love we share outlives us all.”

Video: My Morning Jacket – Only Memories Remain (Visualizer)

The homespun, wistful quality of this track is something you’d expect to someday show up on the soundtrack of a creative TV writer’s creation — it speaks powerfully to the idea of transience and the passage of time.

There’s more of this pathos, and more than a hint of LSD-era poetry, in “Like a River”:

“Time has come / World in motion / Heart of man / Swept into the ocean.”

Video: My Morning Jacket – Like A River (Visualizer)

Even as the album starts, the backdrop that the band paints for the lyrics suggests so much of the ideology and promise that reigned in the days before cell phones, the Internet and the cloud:

“It begins and on and on / A baby’s born / The elder’s down / All in their time / Start a door, the setting sun / The day has come / My mind is open / My oh my.”

You’re not likely to get this kind of introspection from Miley, Kanye or Bieber, or even from most other indie bands now humming through the airwaves, so add this album to your collection for, in the parlance of Monty Python, “something completely different.”

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Images in order: Jim James of My Morning Jacket by Justin Wise via Flickr; My Morning Jacket via Wikimedia Commons