It didn't hit me right away. I liked it, but I wasn't blown open by it. But like so many albums that have come to be Big in my life, My Morning Jacket's fourth full-length, Z, has slowly shown itself to be a truly remarkable recording. There are secrets in the dark shading (like the backwards vocals in the dubbed-out, Live at Pompeii back-end of "Off The Record") and small truths that refuse to speak loudly (such as the angelic, stripped-down, more familiar vocals of Jim James on "Knot Comes Loose").
Being forced to follow up one the decade's best albums, 2003's It Still Moves, is no easy chore, and there will no doubt be fans that feel cheated because they didn't get what they expected, because they didn't get more of the same. With the additions of Carl Broemel on guitar, the tasteful key work of Bo Koster, and the help of wonder-producer John Leckie (who worked with Floyd, Lennon, Harrison, and produced the Stone Roses and Radiohead), My Morning Jacket has managed to retain their trademark, anthemic, rootsy rock buoyed by the soaring, other-worldly, reverb-heavy moans of James, yet they've also taken a step into the future. Just as each album, starting with 1999's The Tennessee Fire, has shown growth, Z is an evolution in the life of My Morning Jacket. There are moments that call early U2 to mind ("Gideon"). There's a touch of pop-laden surf-rock that they somehow manage to pull off ("What A Wonderful Man"), the desperate ballad ("It Beats For You"), and even a psychedelic circus waltz ("Into The Woods"), which almost works.
Each composition taps into the spacious, soulful rock on which the Louisville, Kentucky band has built their farm, and while Z may not surpass the soon-to-be classic It Still Moves (although it may), there is one song that is as good as anything they have ever recorded - "Dondante." The haunting eight-minute closer is life. James's voice floats, creeping over the simple, deep bass groove of Two Tone Tommy. A lingering guitar line slowly weaves itself into the unconscious, the tempo rises, the tension builds to an uncontrollable height, and then it happens. At exactly the 3:30 mark, James's voice uncovers all the emotions of our existence. The pain, the naked emotion, the fight - and then he goes even further at the 4:31 mark and ravages his soul over a screaming, distant guitar, taking the listener to a place where race and religion, class and country no longer have meaning. With "Dondante" Jim James and My Morning Jacket have taken the language of music and made it universal. They have created a masterpiece that can change one's perception.
The next time you go for a long ride by yourself, pull onto that open road with a vast sky, pop Z into the car stereo, and let your mind wander. The answers will come out of the shadows. Jim James's voice will show you the way, and for a few moments, the world will make sense.
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