Sound — 8
Originally being cobbled from a punk band and a country/folk frontman, My Morning Jacket began as a well-kept and well-acclaimed indie folk rock secret for their formative years. After releasing their first two albums through the independent label Darla Records, they would grab the attention of Dave Matthews' ATO Records (a perfect fit for My Morning Jacket's style) and the release of their third album and major label debut, "It Still Moves," would be the band's breakthrough moment. To even more avail would be their fourth album, "Z," where an amalgam of heartland rock, psychedelia and reggae would establish the sonic apex for the band.
But with a rise comes a fall, and the band's continued genre exploration in their fifth album, "Evil Urges," would be a stumble in their discography, where experimentation in the form of grunge and Prince-inspired funk resulted in some head-scratching, lukewarm reception. It was in this aftermath that My Morning Jacket decided to stop wandering and travel back to their root sound with their sixth album, "Circuital," even going so far as to record the album inside an old church in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky - whether that really did hone the power of home-court advantage or was simply entertaining superfluous superstition, the album succeeded in bringing back equilibrium.
With the back-to-basics mentality of "Circuital" recalibrating things, My Morning Jacket set the course to expand from square one once again with their seventh album, "The Waterfall." The first stretch of the album is dedicated to grasping a variance of sonic capabilities, but whereas their bouts of mixing up their sound a decade ago came in the form of touristy genre visitations, "The Waterfall" picks up sonic characteristics from different places and curates them into multi-faceted bouquets. '80s-style synth melodies in "Believe (Nobody Knows)" light the runway before the song takes off into an uplifting chorus and ascending classic rock guitar riffs, warm analog chords pair with a funky, '70s-era rhythm section and vocal harmonies in "Compound Fracture," and "In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)" bookends the band's dependable alt-country style with prog rock-inspired keyboard melodies. The downbeat folk ballad "Like a River" also shakes things up substantially, traveling with a haunting Radiohead-esque mentality, both in the instrumental arrangement and in frontman Jim James' ethereal falsetto.
With the no-frills acoustic folk cut "Get the Point" acting as a pivot point, My Morning Jacket step back to their comfort zone to give the second half of the album all of the band's bread-and-butter styles. They tend to their jam-bandy psychedelic side in the playful "Spring (Among the Living)" and the dreamy but mournful "Thin Line," both of which tout some nice fuzz guitar solos, and the country rocker "Big Decisions" boasts some resonant pedal steel swells. The tail end of the album takes things to the realm of blues, but there are some stumbles in these cuts: the acoustic licks in the opening of "Tropics (Erase Traces)" are a little too familiar to the Yes greatest hit "Roundabout" (though at least it's not as ridiculous as the "Hawaii Five-O" theme being echoed in "Off the Record"), and the latter-era John Lennon feel of the ending "Only Memories Remain" drags on longer than it needs to.
Lyrics — 8
Primarily, James' lyrics penned in "The Waterfall" revolve around romance, but as opposed to the tender, lovesick, and borderline cheesy lover he was in "Z," there's a lot more maturity and emotional growth that James displays in the romantic rubble he treks through in this album. The realization of empty love not being worth the time it drains is pragmatically remarked upon in both "Get the Point" ("And then I realized all the time I was wasting / Trying to mend a broken situation") and "Thin Line" ("Well it's a thin line between lovin' and wasting my time"), though James duly states his absence of animosity towards a failed relationship as well, in "Get the Point" ("And I wish you all the love in this world and beyond") and in the past-cherishing "Only Memories Remain" ("But the love we shared outlives us all / What's done is done at the end of the day / But still, those memories remain").
This positive perspective overlaps into James' outlook towards life in general. Whereas he put on a post-modern critic's hat in the cynical "Evil Urges," James shows a lot more inclination to subscribe to a Buddhist mentality of surrendering to the natural flow of life in "The Waterfall" - he expresses this acceptance in "Believe (Nobody Knows)," and also uses the imagery of water to symbolize the natural flow of life in "Like a River." And James is ardent to identify the virtue that comes in failure in "Compound Fracture," advising the listener it's more important to live life and risk getting injured than to waste it away.
Overall Impression — 8
Both as a new album and as testament to My Morning Jacket's seniority, "The Waterfall" encapsulates a lot for the band. With one foot in their classic sound and one foot extended into new territory, they prove that their sense of adventure in the studio hasn't been completely crushed in the lukewarm reception of "Evil Urges." In fact, with reference to their lyrical theme of learning by screwing up, they may be reveling in the past mistakes as a part of the process necessary to get where they're at now - and right now, they're getting their second wind. "The Waterfall" shows healthy and admirable growth while also appreciating the band's signature style, and for a seventh album, there's little more one could ask for.