Ever since their breakthrough in 2003 with It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket has seemingly made a concerted effort to run as far away as possible from the tangle of meaty classic-rock guitars and shouted-to-the-rafters hooks that made that album, and their live shows, seem so monolithic. While the band’s commitment to bucking expectations is certainly commendable, the specific ways in which they’ve expanded their musical palette have been more successful (2005’s electronic-tinged Z) than others (2008’s all-over-the-place Evil Urges). That trend continues on the band’s seventh album, The Waterfall, where their forays into synth-heavy late-’70s/early-’80s prog and arena rock are alternately inventive and bafflingly blockheaded.
My Morning Jacket hasn’t completely shunned their old sound: The album’s sole electric-guitar epic, “Spring (Among the Living),” is full of intricate riffs, ripping solos, and tonal left turns that keep it from feeling overlong at six minutes. And when they branch out into synth-pop, it’s convincing enough. They put Bo Koster’s soft, dated keyboard tones to good use on “Compound Fracture”; paired with frontman Jim James’s silky falsetto, the result is a slick, early-’80s-style white-boys-doing-Marvin-Gaye pop song (think Elvis Costello’s “Everyday I Write the Book”).
The issue with The Waterfall is that without a snarling bed of guitars behind him, or at least a decent pop hook to wrap his stuffed-nose, marble-mouthed croon around, James often sounds like a painfully sincere, nonsensical cosmic dreamer a la Yes’s Jon Anderson. In fact, the multi-part “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)”—featuring laugh-out-loud lines like “Again I stopped the waterfall by simply thinking!”—sounds like a second-rate Yes song, sans the musicianship or compositional forethought. Still, the doomy verse chords are at least harder-edged than anything on opener “Believe (Nobody Knows),” with its impossibly cheesy ascending chorus consisting of a childishly starry-eyed James wailing, “Beliiiiiiiiiieve!”
James sounds much more grounded elsewhere, especially during the album’s more restrained, acoustic-based tracks, like the plaintive “Get the Point” and the willowy “Like a River.” (It helps that the latter’s hook is just some chanted mystical-sounding gibberish sung through a billowing cloak of reverb anyway.) And “Only Memories Remain” is, lyrically, just a fairly boilerplate breakup song whose staid atmosphere and traditional soul-ballad arrangement serve as a comfortable comedown. It also proves that My Morning Jacket are at their best when operating safely within less experimental paradigms.