One of the more baffling pieces of music journalism I’ve ever read goes like this: “America is a lot closer to getting its own Radiohead, and it isn’t Wilco. My Morning Jacket, from Louisville, Kentucky, have been on the road to their OK Computer.” That line comes from the Rolling Stone review of MMJ’s Z and it’s infuriating on two levels. It enforced the “next Radiohead” label that’s haunted a good number of bands over the last decade or so (hi, Alt-J!) and when it comes to MMJ, trying to tie down their sound with such comparisons seems vapid. MMJ have always been their own odd stew, easily recognized by their strange guitar detours and Jim James’ soaring and cooing voice. Since Z, MMJ’s trip has only gotten weirder. The panned (but occasionally delightful) Evil Urges had the Kentucky boys reevaluating their methods, and they followed that up by contributing to The Muppets soundtrack and releasing their most complete album, Circuital. Perhaps more important was Jim James’ foray into a solo career. Regions of Light and Sound of God found James experimenting with genres he hadn’t touched with MMJ, exploring his hyper-positive vibes in depth. The Waterfall is an MMJ album, but it also has roots in James’ solo work, erasing some of what made the group vital. It’s still undoubtedly of their sound and style, but The Waterfall has a thousand different “Eureka!” moments jammed together without much context or connect.

MMJ’s fondness. for different styles and time periods has always been on display, but they’re more voracious than ever on The Waterfall. This might be a result of James still being addicted to the branching out he experienced on Regions of Light, and it makes The Waterfall one of the least focused records MMJ have made. Second track “Compound Fracture” sounds like Huey Lewis and the News, but is followed up by the dusty and mysterious ballad “Like a River.” The duo after “Like a River” also have a jagged contrast; “In Its Infancy” (The Waterfall)” has MMJ swinging for the fences with a thumping drum and organ combination, only for “Get the Point” to fade in with a plucked guitar lead that cushions James’ sweet send-off to an ex. Then comes “Spring (Among the Living),” which, despite its title, is the darkest song on the album, with foreboding bass undercutting flickering guitar work. Circuital, in contrast, balanced it’s tendencies to make arena-sized anthems with lovely country tunes perfectly. The Waterfall, much like its cover art, overlays dozens of jumbled ideals, unable to combine into something uniformly great.

The Waterfall also holds some uncharacteristic filler material. “Thin Line”’s chorus and verse seem only tangentially connected, and James’ usually measured voice wavers annoyingly. The Waterfall also wears its thematic heart on its sleeve. Most of the album finds James in a blindingly optimistic mood, like he just received some grand revelation he can’t quite explain to the outside world. In the right setting, the big bear hug of “Believe (Nobody Knows)” and “Only Memories Remain” could be comforting and energizing, but if the listener’s in any sort of sour position, they could be debilitating sweet.

The songs can be stunning on their own. “Like a River” is mystifying, a younger brother to the celestial war chant “Victory Dance.” Vibrating organ, simmering strings and a ghostly performance from James make the slow build up-to the cascading finale one of MMJ’s most enthralling moments. “The Waterfall” has sudden, jutting guitar chords that shatter the America-like, easygoing verses and force the song into an uneasy, but thoughtful stride. James’ lyrics can often fall on the sappy, cosmic side of things (and that’s clear on a lot of The Waterfall), but “Get the Point” is one of his most genuine and heartbreaking moments. “I wish you all the love in this world and beyond,” James sings before admitting “our love is done.” The honesty and starkness of the song is what makes it cut to the bone, a welcome break from some of the overstuffed sentiments that flood the album.
The Waterfall doesn’t falter on a song-by-song basis, but it does fail to captivate or become one cohesive package. MMJ’s apparent need to taste everything in the buffet makes the record scattershot, unable to create the sort of strange musical realm that MMJ is usually so deft at crafting.

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