My Morning Jacket

Z

ATO

The first two My Morning Jacket albums were indie masterpieces; capturing two distinct veins of ethereal rock music and forcefully revealing the healing and transformative power of musical expression. In 2003 they released another excellent record, It Still Moves. The press ate it up, calling it a culmination of the band’s “sound.” Yet the truth of the matter is that MMJ never had one “sound,” they’ve always been about expressing through various forms. Jim James and company do everything from lo-fi Red House Painters style ballads to Pearl Jam all-out rockers.

And on Z the band finds a few more venues for their moving music. The horribly titled fourth album from Kentucky’s finest finds them dropping the grain-silo recording of the past and puts them squarely in the studio to produce an uplifting, rollicking and, dare I say, soulful, epic; that is the album of the year.

From the bumping drums of opener “Wordless Chorus” to the get-up-and-dance reggae feel of “Off the Record,” this one forces you to move. Yet don’t be misled by the unrelenting catchy guitar hooks and thumping beats, the heart of the band is still completely in the hands of Mr. James, the best voice in music today. Period.

For the stubborn skeptic, listen to the end of the aforementioned “Wordless Chorus,” where the “oohs” and “aahs” run through your heart straight to your soul. Then for further evidence, put on “Anytime,” and cry yourself silly as you shake your hips as if you’ve never been this free. And if you still must resist, I suggest you dust off a copy of At Dawn, and pump “Lowdown.” MMJ don’t just sing and play music, they combine the two in a sublime way few others ever have.

Yet none of this would mean much if Jim James didn’t have an exceptional lyrical and songwriting sense. He surrounds Z in mystery, from the political symbolism of “Gideon” to the faux religious spin of “What a Wonderful Man” (it isn’t about Jesus). But it all comes clear through the trippy head-splitting beauty of “Into the Woods.” Perhaps the hardest song on the album to swallow, its swirling carnival ride theme is crucial in seeing the full capacity of this work.

Though some have criticized the album for a lack of coherence (ahem, Pitchfork), the “schizophrenic” first impression is thoroughly explained by “Into the Woods.” A psychedelic adventure through “another fool’s dream” that ends up speaking directly to the listener; “find a new love/ and let ’em into your head.” The album becomes a similar journey through the mystical, in order to find one’s own soaring voice. “Wordless Chorus,” “What a Wonderful Man,” “Anytime,” and “Don Dante” all end in different realizations.

But they all climax on “Anytime,” with James rapturously crooning “boy you better learn to express yourself!” For him, each different song is a struggle to express an emotion: fear, joy, pain, love, and hope. That – is art at its highest level.

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