My Morning Jacket arrived at Northern California's Stinson Beach in late 2013 thinking only about making an album. The band was not prepared to be seduced.
But within a couple of days, Jim James, Tom Blankenship, Patrick Hallahan, Carl Broemel and Bo Koster were in love with Panoramic House, a studio perched on a hillside overlooking the ocean. The natural beauty of the surrounding landscape and almost mystical serenity flooded them with a charged sense of possibilities.
"For me, every record has the spirit of where we made it," said James, singer, guitarist and primary songwriter. "Stinson Beach was so psychedelic and focused. It was almost like we lived on our own little moon out there. It feels like you're up in the sky."
"The story of the record really starts there," said Blankenship, a founding member of the Louisville-based band.
Throughout its 16 years, My Morning Jacket has always had a healthy respect for living in the moment and the inherent mysteries of creativity. They gladly took the inspiration that Stinson Beach was offering and crafted a sparkling new album, "The Waterfall," that touches on aspects of the band's celebrated past while pushing forward with a giddy assurance.
There are moments that reach back to early albums such as 2001's "At Dawn" and 2003's "It Still Moves," the record that gave the band a much broader audience. But the experimentation that marked 2004's "Z," 2008's "Evil Urges" and James' 2013 solo album, "Regions of Light and Sound of God" is clearly in effect.
"The Waterfall" sounds like history and decades colliding, like a record made by fervent music fans in search of that tingle up the spine. Inveterate music geeks will hear echoes of vintage rock and pop as MMJ continues to honor its influences without aping any of them; "The Waterfall" sounds like nothing else but also warmly familiar.
Notions of change crop up throughout the album, as does James' longstanding exploration of spirituality. But there's a crucial difference: On "The Waterfall," there are fewer questions and more action. Spirituality has become grounded and made real. "I feel like I still don't know how to explain anything," James said, "but I feel like I've accepted that and I'm just trying to live."
James began the sessions with nearly 30 songs and kept writing. The elevating "Believe (Nobody Knows)" opens the album with a summating blast of faith and acceptance but was the last song written.
"We did a ton of songs, so at the beginning there was no intention or focus," James said. "It was like, let's just go play these songs and figure out which ones fit. Once we did 'Believe,' that kind of tied the record together.
"What fused this record is, I feel like it's a weird turning point for the universe. I feel like so many people I know are getting divorced or having kids. There's so much change going on and I feel like, for me, that one chapter has ended. And if you're looking at a book, there's a hand flipping the page up and it's in between the chapter you just finished and the one that's getting ready to start.
"That's kind of the sound of this record, and my life, the sound of the page turning and not being sure what's coming next."
My Morning Jacket arrived in California after an unusually long time apart. Following a lengthy tour behind 2011's acclaimed "Circuital," band members scattered. James recorded and toured behind his 2013 solo album, "Regions of Light and Sound of God," while Hallahan recorded "Sound of Nowhere" with Spanish Gold.
Blankenship got married and moved to Nashville, and there were dozens of other projects, recording sessions, and marathon record nights in the wilds of Louisville, where James and Hallahan still live. Always a group of friends first, the reunion at Stinson Beach was the ideal combination of intense work and potent fun.
"It's sort of the perfect situation for us to go to an isolated place, with some limitations and not many distractions," Broemel said. "That's how we work best. We kind of get on the same wavelength of happiness."
"The freedom we went into this record with took a lot of the pressure off, as far as what to do and how to do it," Hallahan added. "The mantra was anything goes, no stone unturned, it'll be done when it's done. And it's not easy to pull that off with other people's schedules. I mean, poor Tucker."
That would be Tucker Martine, the Portland-based producer and engineer who also worked with My Morning Jacket on "Circuital." The band has never used the same producer twice since its first two self-produced albums, but Martine and assistant engineer Kevin Ratterman have become integral parts of the team.
Martine oversaw two sessions in California, one at his own Flora Studio and another at Ratterman's La La Land studio in Louisville.
But in the end, it all circled back to Stinson Beach
"Out of all the places we've recorded, I think that place might have informed the record on a spiritual level more than any other," Koster said. "If you listen to 'Like A River,' it just sounds like Stinson Beach."