On ‘The Waterfall II,’ My Morning Jacket Returns With A Sad Epic

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In the summer of 2019, a million years ago in 2020 time, I flirted with the idea of going on a fandango to Colorado in order to see My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks. The venue is at the top of my (apologies for using this corny term) rock-venue bucket list, and MMJ seemed like the perfect band to see there. Long hair, bushy beards, and a screamingly loud Flying V at an elevation of 6,500 feet — what could possibly be better?

Alas, my stupidly frugal and rational side won out. Surely there would be other opportunities to satisfy my Red Rocks rock fantasies, right? Right?? Jesus, what a fool I was. I feel like I shrugged at the chance to hop the last rocket ship to Mars.

I felt especially sharp pangs of regret last month when one of MMJ’s Red Rocks shows from August 2019 was streamed for free online. As I expected, the concert had everything I craved — the hair, the beards, that stout Flying V. Once again, this band proved that they could deliver everything I could possibly want from a band: in short, a hybrid of a bombastically cathartic “big” rock experience mixed with something brainier, jammier, and more nimble. There were delicate, spacey textures that sprawled for minutes on end like an ocean of sound raining down from the sky. They also played the one where Jim James screams “oh shit ruuuuuuuuun!” at the top of his freaking lungs. These guys still can blow minds! How inspiring!

As I watched on my laptop, my guts churning with a mix of elation and profound loss, I was reminded of a fact that I forget all too often: My Morning Jacket truly is one of the great American rock bands of the last 25 years.

Of course, in the past decade, it has seemed as if MMJ has deliberately worked to make people forget this. After building their legend in the aughts with a series of auspicious albums that culminated with the 2005 hit Z, as well as scores of iconic concerts that climaxed with a marathon four-hour show at Bonnaroo in 2008, MMJ took most of the ’10s off. They released two pretty good albums, 2011’s Circuital and 2015’s The Waterfall, and dutifully toured behind them. But otherwise James — the band’s charter member and unquestioned leader — drifted into solo projects and supergroups. And the mighty MMJ faded a bit.

When I spoke with James in 2015, he front-loaded his exhaustion with being the frontman of a medium-popular rock band. He had been haunted by health problems and personal heartache that he attributed more or less directly to the toll of MMJ’s non-stop touring. “I feel like I’ve paid a really heavy cost, a really heavy physical health cost, for the years of touring and how physical I’ve been onstage,” he sighed. “We’ve worked really hard, and maybe it hasn’t been a fair deal. I actually feel a little bit [ripped off]. We’ve had a lot of blessings and a lot of opportunities to do a lot of cool things, but I’ve definitely paid for them all with interest.”

At the time, James was promoting The Waterfall, an album sold as a kind of comeback record and sign of renewal. Which was a little weird, given that James sounded so beat up. But it was also true that The Waterfall was the most engaging album that MMJ had made since Z. And there was supposed to be another LP made during the same sessions that James promised would be out soon. “The two records aren’t related or anything. I don’t want to put it out as, like, The Waterfall 2 or anything like that,” he said. “I just think it’d be fun to put out another record a little bit quicker than we normally do.”

Smash cut to several million and five years later. In 2020, the album that James spoke of back in 2015 has finally been released. Instead of coming out “a little bit quicker” than the normal MMJ album, it arrives after the longest break ever between the band’s records. Oh, and it’s also called, in spite of James’ initial protestations, The Waterfall II. Like all of us, James has hastily improvised under impossible circumstances.

Had My Morning Jacket not just demonstrated with startling efficiency how potent they are as a live act, one might assume that The Waterfall II — an album that sat in the vault for at least five years, and was made as part of a project that began in late 2013, in the early days of Obama’s second term — signals a discouraging sign of the band’s future vitality. Does this even actually count as a “new” record? Or is it technically a “lost” record, a la Neil Young’s recent Homegrown?

Let’s set that aside for a moment. After wondering about this album for so many years, I’m happy to finally have The Waterfall II out in the world. Nobody at this point is expecting the second coming of It Still Moves or anything, but it’s just nice to feel like these guys haven’t ridden completely off into the sunset. And that all comes down to James. He’s the one who had to decide this thing was actually worth putting out. For years, he was ambivalent. (This album came up again when I interviewed him in 2018, and he was in no hurry to even ponder it.) I wonder if on some level he resented MMJ, his life’s work and also the thing that had ripped him off, with interest.

James has said he decided to finally put out The Waterfall II as a surprise summer release when the album’s first song, a wistful psych-soul ballad called “Spinning My Wheels,” came up on his personal shuffle. He felt the song’s dreamy allusions about the need to “find a new day / a new way / to get clear / to be here” applied to the current moment. Which, okay, sure, I can see that. Though the song opens with a couplet that more directly speaks to James’ frame of mind when I interviewed him five years ago: “I’ve been wrong for so long / Risking my life for the sake of the song.”

On The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket sounded determined to remind fans of the monolithic jams they made their name with in the ’00s. It was a record designed to be played live at places like Red Rocks and Bonnaroo, with a bevy of anthemic howlers that could sonically expand to fill the expanse of any venue. A true “we’re back, baby!” record. The sequel, however, carries no such pretenses. Even the hardest rocking track, “Wasted,” which settles on a surly guitar groove accented with punchy horns, feels more like an invitation to explore the darkest corners of innerspace than a call to party. In that way, The Waterfall II feels (apologies for using another corny term) more honest. Much of the record is composed of bleary-eyed, pedal steel-laced ballads that dwell ruefully on loss and aspire gorgeously to a state of healing, creating an all-too-relatable vibe of heartsick restlessness driven by a desperate desire to believe that tomorrow will somehow be better. So I guess it really is relevant to our endless now after all.

Starting with the likable career-ruiner Evil Urges, James has been moving away from the heart-exploding arena-rock sound that MMJ pursued as well as any band of their generation. But it wasn’t until the Waterfall albums that he was able to coherently incorporate the pop and R&B influences he’s pursued in his solo work into the framework of MMJ. On The Waterfall II, he guides his band through some stunningly silky golden age of soul exercises. “Still Thinkin'” starts as an amiably bopping ’60s pop song, and then melts into a hazy coda accentuated with fusion-jazz keyboards and Quiet Storm sax wails. MMJ returns to this well time and again at the heart of the record, with James cutting through the slinky “Magic Bullet” with a molten lava guitar solo and then settling into a comfortable Bill Withers purr on “Run It.”

There’s also a pronounced country feel to many of these songs, more than on any MMJ album since The Tennessee Fire. Though James, as usual, never plays southern rock straight: “Climbing The Ladder” is like a Waylon Jennings song with a disco beat, an inadvertent nod to Sturgill Simpson’s future, while “Feel You” is acid-laced yacht rock with a delectably fluttery Seals & Crofts guitar lick.

What does any of this portend for the band? Apparently there’s another MMJ album that was recorded after their brief 2018 and ’19 tours, though it’s unclear when it will come out. Perhaps the answer can be found in the music. The Waterfall II ends with the album’s prettiest ballad of all, “The First Time,” in which James pines for the innocence of the past.

“Can tomorrow feel like it did back in the past? Before we knew it too well?” James sings in a spine-tingling falsetto. “But only time, time will tell / If tomorrow feels like / The first time… the first time.” In other words, who knows? As another long-lost rock band who returned in 2020 recently observed, this is the new abnormal. Nevertheless, I like not having to completely let go of everything we once knew just yet. The Waterfall II gives me hope that there’s another Red Rocks concert in all of our futures.

The Waterfall II is out now via ATO Records. Get it here.