I had heard a lot about My Morning Jacket but I’d never actually heard them. Then I saw songwriter/lead singer Jim James’ haunting performance of ‘Goin’ to Acupulco’ in I’m Not There and I realized it was time to jump in.
My Morning Jacket is one of those bands (like Radiohead and Wilco) that did a certain thing very well for awhile, then suddenly started doing something strange and different equally well. Evil Urges is their OK Computer or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Now, coming to the band fresh with this release doesn’t allow me to talk about their evolution, so all I can talk about is the music. And the music is nothing short of superb.
If the musical genetics of My Morning Jacket was decidedly Allman Brothers up til now, Evil Urges suggests somebody spliced a strand of Prince into their DNA. The title track, indeed, sounds like a duet between those two acts, with falsetto verses about free love separated by Southern rock guitar jams. It’s an eye-opening start to an album with many more surprises in store. ‘Highly Suspicious’ sounds like a duet between Prince and Cookie Monster, with a growling chorus that has you saying “What the hell is this?” until you realize the answer is “the coolest thing I’ve heard in years.”
After those left-field tracks, the album settles into a more straightforward groove, with some breezy country ballads and a couple Springsteen barn-burners. But things end on an ominous note, with the killer one-two punch of ‘Smokin from Shootin’ and ‘Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2,’ the former a reverb-soaked track reminiscent of Wilco’s best work and the latter a strangely danceable finale driven by a keyboard and bass line that feels like a dying heartbeat. At that point, it feels like your only choice is to hit repeat and listen to the whole thing over again.
I’ve deliberately avoided discussing the lyrics in the first part of this review because there is another level on which this album impresses. Unlike so many records, it is truly about something. The overriding theme is nothing more or less than what it means to be human.
In his wounded tenor, James explores the importance (and difficulty) of forging connections with other people. The title track laughs at the mindset that calls non-traditional romantic urges “evil” — it could be the gay marriage anthem we didn’t know we were waiting for. Later, in ‘Librarian’ (the album’s best track), James describes a stroll through the library where he secretly crushes on the title character and imagines lying next to her in bed, whispering:
Cause everything’d be great, and everything’d be good, if everybody gave like everybody could.’
Other tracks tackle this theme on a broader scale, exploring politics and religion, often at the same time — ‘Look at You’ is a cry for passionate leadership that could be directed at Jesus Christ or Barack Obama. On stellar first single ‘I’m Amazed,’ James runs down a list of things that, well, amaze him:
I’m amazed at the lack of faith
I’m amazed at the love we rejecting
I’m amazed at what we accept in its place
Me… I’m amazed by this album.
Few things in fandom compare to those moments when you happen upon something brand new that just kicks your ass, artistically-speaking. I can’t wait to dive into My Morning Jacket’s catalog and discover what I’ve been missing out on the last nine years.