Tell me spirit, what has not been done?
Singer-writer Jim James asks the question on “Wordless Chorus”, the first track of My Morning Jacket’s fourth full-length album, Z. Yes, the chorus is indeed wordless, James opting for his echo-laden trademark howls between verses. In fact, let’s get his voice out of the way. James uses echo to great affect on nearly all Jacket songs, slurring lines like he’s had too much homegrown Kentucky bourbon. And if he has, it’s worth it; James’ mellow approach works, whether it’s sung over meandering guitar or stark piano. Or both.
Z arrives on the heels of a band shakeup that saw two original members take a hike after the release of and touring behind It Still Moves. New players Carl Broemel (guitar) and Bo Koster (keys) round out the outfit, and Z is another dynamic album and a great listen. It’s almost as if there was no fallout.
“I wanted … to make this really sad, mysterious kind of dance music, something that really got into your butt, but also really got into your head and made you think,” writes James in the band’s bio. This is a precise assessment that is borne out in Z, which seeps into the vein through a big drip of Skynyrd-style jams, R&B, Vaudevillian piano, stormy bass lines and certainly evocative lyrics; there’s even some whistling, a tragically widely devalued vocal medium for recordings.
Romance is present in “It Beats 4 U”. Over a bass lick that brings to mind Flaming Lips’ “One More Robot”, James summons his muse: You know my heart it beats for you / So in time we beat / Your thoughts align / So in time with me. But just when thoughts of your own lover might be forming, the band reels you back with “Gideon”, a straight-ahead rock tune that changes directions (Religion should appeal to the hearts of the young / Who are you? / What have you become?)
But wait. There’s another troubling question in “What a Wonderful Man”: Why do we love what is wrong? / Big devil told us to sing along / And like a loving flock we obey / Except 4 Him / He went his own way.
With spiritual content like this, it’s generally a pleasure to hear the writer’s reflections, listen to his questions, posed in complement to the band behind them. I don’t pretend to be inside James’ head, but I will say that the words of Z are, with a few exceptions, thought-provoking and sincere. Not all of them are necessarily palatable, though.
Back to the music. In other words, the crunch Jacket is capable of and how it offers a smorgasbord of flavors. There’s the Jamaican rhythm of “Off the Record,” which will put a zing in your step, guaranteed. Think of any footage of the dancing at a Grateful Dead concert and you’ve got it. Then, sit under the Big Top for a performance of “Into the Woods”, a strange love song backed by a quickstepping organ that feels like walking through the midway and falling in love. This is also Jacket’s best bass album. Two-Tone Tommy’s playing is prominent in the mix, and he has a wizard box of chorus-delay that keeps it interesting.
The music of Z is also appealing by simply being too groovy for most rock radio stations, yet not angry enough for college radio after hours. The album avoids any deadly guitar clichés while not altogether ignoring the jam. So check out Z and, better yet, see My Morning Jacket on tour this fall (see dates here).
Darren Thornberry is a music writer in metro Denver. Some days, he thinks he's heard it all. Follow him on Twitter @stubbornsounds.