By: Dennis Cook
Part of rock 'n' roll's endurance is its ability to capture the character of an age. The reason folks are still dropping the needle on Hotel California, Sgt. Pepper and Wish You Were Here is a lethal combination of beautiful craftsmanship, sheer talent AND a flickering glimmer of the Big Picture during their respective moments in time. History is frequently summed up more accurately by a mood than with strict record keeping. Beginning in fear and ending in passionate wailing, My Morning Jacket's fifth studio album, Evil Urges (released June 10 on ATO Records), is this sort of universal skeleton key, opening the dusty rooms in post-millennial America so sunlight can disinfect the mold growing on our infrastructure. It also happens to be a gorgeous, off-handedly seductive stunner that might just make us better people if we listen close enough.
What is what? Man, they got us so scared
Thinkin' we so evil way down under there
Ooh! I made a nasty decision!
To love whoever I want, just a whenever I can
Unquestionably, this is MMJ's most user friendly outing, a song cycle as inviting and repeat worthy as Fleetwood Mac's Rumours or Crosby, Stills & Nash's 1969 debut. Like those classics, the production and arrangements conjure a sustained yet varied spell. Track to track, Jim James and co-producer Joe Chiccarelli (Beck, Café Tacuba, Oingo Boingo, Elton John) create fascinating differences that lure one back over & over, utilizing every aspect of the band in a way that's pointed yet unforced. This feels like more of a group effort than anything else in MMJ's catalog. While James firmly remains their lightning rod, there's a collective intelligence to Evil Urges, from tiny keyboard flares to the brilliant guitar layering to the winning mix of live percussion and drum machines, that suggests a multi-headed beast with one massive heart. Like all the precedents cited above, this feels like a band hitting their full creative stride. Unlike these precedents, there's a lot less drama and drug madness surrounding these guys so we may get to see what a marathon classic looks like rather than the bright sprinters we're used to.
From the cover art to the luxurious strings, there are a number of baroque touches, a certain largeness of spirit and art and what have you that infuse the album with a strange gravitas. As bluntly catchy as the bulk of Evil Urges is there's also sumptuous weight and insight within their smartly crafted riffing and irresistible choruses. While "I'm Amazed" comes on like a summer time French kiss, it also contains barbs about TV stations and what they want us to believe and disbelief at a divided nation. Never programmatic, MMJ merely pulls back the sheet so we can see ourselves as we truly are. If we're disturbed by what we glimpse then maybe, as they suggest in subtle ways, we should change the shape we're in.
Remnants of the empire – artifacts of love
Will I meet the designer, what will he dream up?
Remnants of the empire – gravity awake…
What's held down to the ground next round goes into space
Raising up the empire – innocence and faith -
What will hold you up and what will stand in your way?
Evil Urges is the kind of record where one's favorite cut will likely switch and switch again over the years. Today it's the "peanut butter pudding surprise" of "Highly Suspicious," tomorrow it's the wistful wooing of "Librarian," which takes poor Karen Carpenter by the hand and updates '60s folk troubadour tropes for the Interweb age. Like a chain of islands, each track shines in its own way, stirring memories of Blue Oyster Cult, George Harrison, Cheap Trick, The Bee Gees, E.L.O. and countless others but always landing somewhere uniquely Morning Jacket. Like Ween, these guys know the ins & outs of their ancestors, and both genuflect before and reject tradition. It's a tough balance, to lure and rebel simultaneously, but MMJ manage it, adding light humor to '70s soft rock on "Thank You Too!" (a sort of Glen Campbell hit that never was) and "Sec Walkin" (where they raise Charlie Rich from his velvet tomb) or puncturing pop with metal edge on "Remnants" and "Aluminum Park." James' voice reaches new maturity here, dialing back the reverb and morphing wildly from song to song. It's an emotional nakedness that shows a lot of courage and ultimately pays out huge dividends in extending MMJ's overall range. Here, he swings from a Elton John/Bread orchestral, sensitive guy pop singer on "Smokin From Shootin" to a purring Soft Cell synth boy swinger on "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt. 2," and he sails through both with flying colors.
True artistic success is doing just what you want. While this might stray from the indie clubhouse days of At Dawn it also makes no concessions to a mainstream that would probably suggest they sand away their eccentricities (there is a LOT of Prince-ly falsetto on here). Perfectly pitched between weirdo outsider experimentation and near Beatles level commonality, Evil Urges is a grand album, in all senses of the word. Whether it's the important one it feels like – zeitgeist in a groove – only time well tell. While we wait, the boys from Louisville have given us another hymnbook to sing on our road to nowhere.
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