Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: My Morning Jacket The Waterfall II

The first new My Morning Jacket song you’ll hear in almost half a decade is about paralysis. The first words you’ll hear Jim James sing are “I’ve been wrong for so long/ Risking my life for the sake of the song.” It’s strikingly out of character — no matter the sadness that could run across MMJ’s catalog, James has almost always seemed like the type of man who believes in the sacred, healing capacity of music above all else. He continues: “Just spinning my wheels/ Gotta find a way out… a way out of here.” By the end he switches to a resolution — “Done spinning my wheels” — but the tone of the song never shifts. It’s a deeply pretty exhale, but one haunted by dead ends and defeats. The first new My Morning Jacket song you’ll hear in almost half a decade might make you wonder just why it’s been that long, and whether they want to be back at all — or at least where The Waterfall II finds them.

“Spinning My Wheels” is the key to unlocking My Morning Jacket’s new album in more ways than one. In its sentiments about being “hypnotized from doing the same old thing,” there’s some suggestion of why MMJ may have gone so long without releasing new music. But it was also the song that led to The Waterfall II eventually, finally, coming out. In the early days of quarantine, James was walking around with his music on shuffle, and he stumbled into “Spinning My Wheels.” It compelled him to revisit the other material left over from the sessions that led to their last album, 2015’s original Waterfall. So in a way, The Waterfall II is both a long-awaited follow-up and an accidental quarantine album beamed in from another time.

There were rumblings about this album, or some other companion to The Waterfall, basically all the way back to the first Waterfall’s release. In interviews over the years, James would talk about the overabundance of music from those sessions, an inspiring creative passage on the other side of great personal turmoil. There was supposedly a sister album that was dancier, or more electronic-leaning. (Now, upon the revelation of The Waterfall II, we know that the band once toyed with the idea of a triple album before settling on two parts, and it’d appear that other Waterfall iteration is still shelved, or never came together.) He discussed the idea of following up The Waterfall quickly with this second half, which obviously didn’t happen. As the years went on and no new MMJ album seemed on the horizon, James would alternate between saying he’d moved on from that old Waterfall material for the time being and mentioning that it was basically ready to be released, just in need of mastering.

It’s not as if MMJ were silent all this time. They toured behind The Waterfall. They took time for solo endeavors or other projects, like when everyone but James — guitarist Carl Broemel, bassist Tom Blankenship, keyboardist Bo Koster, and drummer Patrick Hallahan — backed up Strand Of Oaks for last year’s Eraserland. James began churning out solo albums. Two new MMJ tracks, “Magic Bullet” and “The First Time,” came out in 2016 — they were part of that Waterfall era, and they’ve now found a permanent home on The Waterfall II. Last year, the band played a handful of shows commemorating the 20th anniversary of their debut The Tennessee Fire; a couple years before that they reissued It Still Moves. There was no big exile or absence. And yet, there was a strange lack of perceivable motion towards the next chapter of MMJ. And now, after all that time, they returned out of nowhere with a surprise release picking up a story first began in 2015.

All the circumstances behind The Waterfall II make it a bit of an oddity. A handful of songs we previously knew, and the fact that it originates from sessions for another album inevitably sets it up as some kind of B-sides throat-clearing, perhaps a very belated cap on one story before the band would begin telling another. But it’s presented as not just a lost album but also a new album — and it does very much play as one, unified work. You can hear all the ways in which it’s an extension of The Waterfall, but you can also listen to it as its own complete entity. It has threads and throughlines from across MMJ’s career, and it’s also unlike any of their other albums.

For one thing, there’s “Spinning My Wheels” again: My Morning Jacket have never begun an album the way they do here. They have had slow-burn introductions, like the way At Dawn’s title track conjuring leads right into the one-two punch of “Lowdown” and “The Way That He Sings,” or the sinister ascension of Circuital’s “Victory Dance.” But their albums always feel like these new, wondrous worlds, and their openers fittingly like the curtains rising on those worlds. “Spinning My Wheels” has no sweeping build, no cathartic climax. It’s a quiet, ruminative song throughout, so much that the eventual “Done spinning my wheels” sounds as much like a wary hope issued from the headspace of the rest of the song as it does any kind of conclusion. Thematically and sonically, it foreshadows what’s to come.

My Morning Jacket have never released an album that’s as consistently mellow and subdued as The Waterfall II. In its 10 tracks, there are still plenty of detours and explorations. The tear-stained ’60s pop bounce of “Still Thinkin” suddenly bleeds out into one of those trademark melted MMJ instrumental codas. “Climbing The Ladder,” which sticks one of the most straight-up country-rock guitar licks in MMJ’s catalog onto a disco thump, is the exact kind of lark you find on the second discs of double albums. But even the moments the band gets closest to a rocker are strange, bleary things. “Magic Bullet” addresses gun violence above a robo-funk prowl that feels like an eerier descendent of stuff like “Holdin’ On To Black Metal.” “Wasted” alludes to misspent time over a big ’70s rock arrangement that almost seems as if it exists purely to lurch into its scraggly four minute jam that, more than any lyrics, conveys the sort of chemical distraction that might’ve yielded that misspent time.

Front to back, The Waterfall II leans far more into the quieter sides of MMJ’s personality — perhaps at times suggesting a lived-in continuation of the AM Gold soft rock that’s been a bigger part of MMJ’s DNA since Evil Urges. “Spinning My Wheels” sets the stage, and balladry takes many forms from there: “Still Thinkin” answered by another lament in “Beautiful Love (Wasn’t Enough),” the extremely catchy but gentle highway rambler “Run It,” another acoustic number in “Welcome Home.” Even in its best moments — the patient spiral of the stunning “Feel You,” which features that classic guitar interplay between James and Broemel, or the transfixing and shimmery finale “The First Time” — The Waterfall II remains meditative, searching. There’s always that quality to My Morning Jacket’s music, a yearning seeking to be sated by imagining some vivid new horizon. But there are less eruptions than quiet storms here, less anthemic purges than music that feels like someone letting the tendrils of loss and years curl idly through the air.

The Waterfall II, naturally, arose from the same events that inspired The Waterfall all those years ago. When the latter was coming out, every article fixated on how it was a darker MMJ album; James had recovered from an injury and gone through a major breakup. The title wasn’t just some hippie reference to the transformative beauty of nature, but the idea that life is a waterfall that keeps pushing you down until you learn to let currents wash over you. James was weathered, talking about how years of traveling had taken their toll. It was not a positive album, but it still gazed towards the stars, tracks such as “Like A River” or the album’s trio of psychedelic, parenthetically-titled epics trying to abandon earthly pain by looking back up to the cosmos for transcendence.

At its core, there was a brooding and a bitterness to The Waterfall not so frequently glimpsed in MMJ’s music. In comparison, The Waterfall II is another part of the same process, a more somber and reflective look back on the same wreckage. And it’s perhaps more explicitly a breakup album, with almost every song referencing love withering in some form or another — much of it, seemingly, because of the decisions we make about how to spend our lives otherwise or the erosion of time. From “Spinning My Wheels” to “Climbing The Ladder” (“Still climbing the ladder/ Still paying my dues/ Don’t wanna be headed anywhere though/ Except back to you”) to “Feel You” (“Make time to waste time to feel time… Reaching out between the worlds/ To feel you”), James appears to attribute the death of romance to the obligations of his life otherwise. In “Beautiful Love,” he places the blame on himself, addressing an ex-partner and their generosity by asking, “Why is my bitter heart so demanding?”

All of this ends where it began. “The First Time,” in a sense, feels like an overdue denouement to the entire Waterfall saga. While “Only Memories Remain” was a long, mournful acknowledgement of the death of things, sifting through the ashes, “The First Time” is a celestial call back to the spark of beginnings, of new stories. It’s a gorgeous, engrossing sigh at the end of both albums. “We live on learning from the past/ And I know those feelings… that never seem to last/ But can we put it on again?/ And have it feel as special/ As it did back then?” James asks. Then, at the conclusion of the Waterfall’s second half, there’s one more question: “I wonder where the time went?”

It’s a strange question to ponder as a My Morning Jacket fan in 2020. In the context of these albums, there’s all kinds of stuff about getting older and wear and tear and what we’ve lost in exchange for other things; there’s reckoning with what bargains were worth it. “Where all the time went” could mean a lot of things, perhaps about James’ own life. But then, to a listener, it’s like a lost signal from half a decade ago that only seems to suggest some kind of depletion and world-weariness creeping into the transporting sounds My Morning Jacket have always tried to give people over the years.

That runs into the context in which we’re hearing The Waterfall II, which is as My Morning Jacket’s first album in five years. If it were just that — say, if the band waited another couple years before releasing another album — maybe this would sound deflating to some listeners. An often restrained album, fixated with what went wrong and the years that slipped through our fingers. Now, after all this time, it’s been brought into the world of a global pandemic that has given us all a whole lot of time to sit at home and relitigate our own pasts. Depending on how you approach it, The Waterfall II might feel like a hard-earned sense of peace, the final last word on a chapter in one’s life. Or thanks to its delayed arrival, maybe it will feel all the more weighed down by time — another five months (or years) spent spinning your wheels.

There is of course, that one other way in which The Waterfall II is an oddity — the idea that whether it is a sequel or a once-lost completion of a double album, it is picking up a story from long ago, out of nowhere. Some fans will hear each differently. Waterfall II might have less obvious highs than Waterfall, but it might be more consistent throughout; The Waterfall might have allowed MMJ to go in more directions, but The Waterfall II is a rare and surprising moment in their career where they’ve mostly settled into one sound and mood for a sustained amount of time. This could be the dusty comedown Part Two, or it could be the attempt to find more contentment than the rawer, gaping wounds that still cut across The Waterfall.

Yet no matter how you frame The Waterfall II for yourself, it’s a beautiful and unexpected curiosity — existing not as an add-on or in response to The Waterfall, but suggesting that we’re just now getting to hear the whole conversation between two very different yet completely intertwined works. Throughout, this is music of goodbyes. Now, all this time later, maybe this is the last one — and it’s finally time to start anew.

The Waterfall II is out now on ATO.