Evil Urges Turns 10

Evil Urges Turns 10

My Morning Jacket were in a new chapter. In 2005, they released Z, a turning-point album that served as a demarcation between the first phase of the band and what came next. Having added guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster to the fold, the group had settled on a new lineup that has stayed intact ever since, a lineup that seemed like the true, essential iteration that MMJ was always moving towards. And that version of MMJ had both honed their focus into tighter, hook-driven material and taken the spectral Southern rock of their early days to more cosmic territory. As a result, Z garnered them more widespread praise than any album that had preceded it, enticing new listeners and winning over critics who might’ve previously dismissed them as rock revivalists adjacent to the jam-band scene. So when its successor Evil Urges appeared, 10 years ago yesterday, it was their highest-profile release yet.

Coming off the buzz of Z, Evil Urges arrived to a good amount of anticipation and curiosity; it was their first album to make it into the top 10 of Billboard’s chart. This could’ve been a turning point as major as Z, capitalizing on the momentum and helping them level up to true festival headliner status. It’s also an album where the band more or less missed the mark. Though excitably received at the time, it remains their most divisive work. That’s not exactly a bad thing. Evil Urges could’ve been a star-making turn of sorts for MMJ, but it instead established factors that would define their trajectory going forward, both artistically and in the steadier, off-to-the-side way in which they’ve continued growing.

This is, of course, the one with the big stylistic detours. Though a reverb-drenched and ghostly interpretation of Americana and rock had been what defined MMJ for their first three albums, even those early days had a lot of harbingers of experimentation to come. Their 1999 debut The Tennessee Fire had enough room for yearning country tunes like “Evelyn Is Not Real” and a spaced-out Southern groove like “The Dark“; At Dawn’s “Phone Went West” hinted at reggae; later on, Z mostly traded their original twang in favor of celestial arena-rock and left-turns like the aqueous “Wordless Chorus.”

But if you sift through the non-album material from the days before Z, you’d find clearer hints of where things might end up. The Early Recordings compilations, released in 2004 between It Still Moves and Z, had Jim James covering logical choices like Elton John and Hank Williams, but also more unexpected options like Erykah Badu and Pet Shop Boys. The 2002 EP Chocolate And Ice included a song called “Cobra” that mutated from a whispery funk to desert incantation to discursive stretches of ambience (and live, a heavy section bordering on metal). The blueprint was there: James was a restless and voracious listener, which is what always made MMJ feel like a unique rock artist for their time. It’s also what would eventually yield an album like Evil Urges.

At shows in the spring of ’08, MMJ had started to preview some of the songs from the then-forthcoming Evil Urges. I remember coming across a grainy video of “Highly Suspicious” and watching it with a few friends, hungry for any hint of what the album would sound like. The reaction was a resounding What the shit? Everyone was expecting something that built on Z, that further explored that world. Instead, “Highly Suspicious” came across as a troll move, a stuttering electro-funk jam with cartoonish background vocals and James doing some kind of jocular Prince homage while singing about a “peanut butter pudding surprise.” Even with lead single “I’m Amazed” assuaging some fears, it looked like Evil Urges would be the sound of an adventurous MMJ going too far out to sea.

They did, in a sense, lose their compass. Evil Urges is all over the place, and not in any way that truly coheres like Z or later albums like Circuital and The Waterfall tend to. “Highly Suspicious” is still a song that can incite debates between longtime fans. Personally, I was onboard after that initial shock subsided; it’s a goofy song, for sure, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun live. And while nothing on Evil Urges was comparably batshit, “Highly Suspicious” had unveiled a distinguishing characteristic about the album — the fact that James was thinking more about grooves, that he was bringing synthesizers and soul melodies and dance beats fully into MMJ’s world.

This is actually what worked about Evil Urges; its failings have less to do with genre digressions than the band not going far enough in any one direction. The highlights were, primarily, the songs that leaned hardest on the new aesthetic. The album starts strong with the one-two of its shape-shifting title track and the gently persistent throb of “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 1.” At the other end of the album, there was the titanic “Pt. 2,” an implausible success of taking a disco beat and Omnichord and conjuring up one of the most addicting and cathartic exorcisms in the entire MMJ catalog. It’s rightfully become a standard over the last 10 years, a key entry in their canon.

The real issues with Evil Urges cropped up when MMJ were giving us something that, theoretically, was more usual for their wheelhouse. After the album’s first stretch wraps up with “I’m Amazed,” it goes all-in on this middle passage of soft rock and balladry. It starts off OK enough, with the flickering “Thank You Too!” and the starlit “Sec Walkin,” each of which would be the weakest inclusions on another MMJ album but look better next to their Evil Urges counterparts. But from there, Evil Urges devolves into the schmaltziest, most tedious series of songs MMJ ever put on an album. The non-entity pop of “Two Halves,” the eyeroll-tempting “Librarian,” the grating “Look At You” — that’s a run of underwhelming tracks relative MMJ’s other work, and they retroactively damage the two preceding songs to make the heart of Evil Urges feel completely interminable.

Afterwards, there seems to be a respite when MMJ wake back up with “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants,” but while enjoyable enough they were also signals of diminishing returns. Holding down the spot “Anytime” more or less did on Z, they’re each half the song of their predecessor and still don’t add up to enough to kick off Evil Urges’ final act the way “Anytime” did for Z. (“Anytime” is admittedly a tough one to live up to; it is one of their best songs, after all.) Earlier on the album, MMJ did slightly better in terms of rockers with “I’m Amazed,” a catchy composition that has held up decently through the years even if doesn’t feel as exhilarating as when it first came out.

Rather than freedom, all the different sounds and styles gave Evil Urges a sense of aimlessness. And yet, the album does come together into one of the best finales the band has ever put together. The entire thing is almost salvaged by the stunning pairing of “Smokin From Shootin” and “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 2.” The former succeeds where the album’s other mellow, introspective moments fell short: It’s a sparkling, intensifying ballad with a memorable and affecting melody that’s proven fertile ground for singalongs in the years since. It’s a nearly perfect marriage of MMJ’s disparate identities at that time; you could imagine an earlier iteration of the song with the same reverbed winsomeness as At Dawn, but on Evil Urges it has a sort of nocturnal thrum to it. And it sets the stage for the volcanic rise of “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 2,” the song that proved MMJ’s stylistic overhauls were the way to go on this particular album.

It’s tempting to imagine how it could’ve gone differently, if between the promising first couple songs and its effective conclusion, Evil Urges had delved further into the alluring, synth-kissed vistas hinted at by its standout tracks. Even then, there’s something tonally askew about the whole collection. There was a slickness to the production that successfully avoided the tropes of their older albums — the grain silo, the ragged guitar fireworks — and broke new ground for them. But it also worked directly counter to some of their most significant strengths. Sometimes a singer’s inhuman qualities are precisely what make them so entrancing, and James’ cavernous howl is almost nowhere to be found on Evil Urges. He’s more mortal and present than on the lush, drenched early albums, but there’s a way in which he almost sounds held back within his own songs here.

But while Evil Urges might not have totally worked as an artistic endeavor, it did sort of work as the follow-up to Z. There was no question that MMJ felt like a bigger concern if you caught shows through 2008. There’s no question that they’ve risen to a particular kind of prominence in the 10 years since. Evil Urges derailed one kind of ascension that could’ve happened for MMJ then — if it had hopped on the wave built by Z, you can imagine a different world in which MMJ had become one of the big names in the indie sphere and went on to hang out alongside the National and Arcade Fire and St. Vincent, driving internet fervor and a year’s narrative whenever they return with new music. And maybe someday from there, they’d be at the very top of a festival poster, one of those unifying artists that transcend their scene and time.

My Morning Jacket got that, in a different capacity. Now, each time they release a new album you’ll see press, you’ll probably see mostly positive reviews. But they never feel as if they’re defining the year. They have another brand of success, the model that allows them to exist off to the side, with an ardent fanbase that doesn’t fluctuate according to whatever people are writing or not writing about MMJ, according to whatever their “narrative” is. When Evil Urges came out, it definitely brought some people on the bandwagon, and it definitely scared a few others away who had temporarily been converted by Z. Even though the songs themselves were uneven, this is the lasting, crucial gift Evil Urges gave MMJ and their fans: There weren’t really any rules after this.

When MMJ returned in 2011 with Circuital, there was some talk of getting back to basics, of trying to capture their live energy. It wasn’t, exactly; it was still a more polished sound than any of their older albums. And there were still plenty of new stylistic ideas in play, whether in the shimmering space-soul of “The Day Is Coming” or the bizarre psych-funk of “Holdin’ On To Black Metal.” And then again in 2015, The Waterfall had room for autumnal, otherworldly rock epics that felt like spiritual descendants of Z alongside the unclassifiable pop of “Compound Fracture.” Both albums sound like My Morning Jacket. But that sound, at this point, is that no two MMJ albums will sound quite the same. There are through lines, connections. But Z kicked off something that Evil Urges solidified, that the boundaries of this project would move much further out than the already-expansive sound of the earlier albums.

That’s a specific type of freedom, the sort where you can chase the exact sound in your head without regards to much of what else is happening. That you can release music that might not ignite the mainstream consciousness but then take it out on the road and play it to adoring crowds big enough for large theaters and sometimes arenas and even resorts once a year. It’s a strange thing to look back on an album like Evil Urges. Everything MMJ had done before and have done since is better than this album. And yet it arrived at such a pivotal era of their career, and did what it needed to.

Though it has its adherents who would rail against this sort of claim, Evil Urges is almost like a confused album the band needed to get out of their system. (Sorry for the MMJ pun.) They did whatever they wanted here, and it didn’t always click. But more so than ever before, it was now clear that’s exactly how MMJ will always operate. Evil Urges is their weakest album, and hopefully that always remains the case. But it’s also something else, a waypoint that allows you to get to the riches that did pop up on the punchy Circuital or the desperate wonder of The Waterfall. The MMJ we have had in recent years was, in pretty much every way, better than the MMJ we had in 2008. To get there, maybe Evil Urges was an album that needed to happen.

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