In the late ‘90s, something strange emerged from Kentucky. A young songwriter named Jim James, recently a member of a band called Mont Du Sundua, had a bunch of acoustic songs that didn’t work for his current group. He started a new project, with an oddball name: My Morning Jacket. He made an album, referencing his home state’s southern neighbor. Nobody knew what to do with this band exactly, even though those that found them were pulled in by these echoing, haunting songs. They were’t alt-country and probably had the same discomfort with being sidelined there as every other artist that was burdened by that pseudo-concocted genre. You could imagine My Morning Jacket just fading back into the ether from which it came. A couple of Southern rock weirdoes made this one dusty album that would live on as the subject of cult fascination — mostly, for whatever reason, in the Netherlands. But then, two years later, it happened again, and a would-be tangent completely to the side of anything going on in rock or indie as the ’90s gave way to a new millennium instead became the infamously reverb-drenched building blocks of one of the great rock bands of our time.
Twenty years ago today, My Morning Jacket released their sophomore album At Dawn. In a sense, it was actually the first album, at least by My Morning Jacket as a fully-fledged group. From the start, the project was the vision of James, in partnership with his cousin Johnny Quaid. When it came time to finish up that 1999 debut The Tennessee Fire, they brought in Tom Blankenship and J. Glenn on bass and drums for some songs. But by At Dawn, Blankenship and Glenn were officially in the band, now joined by keyboardist Danny Cash. Back then, Quaid and James recorded at a place called Above The Cadillac Studios, which was a room on a family farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. This time they brought the whole crew there. As a band, a project, and an entity, My Morning Jacket came into just a bit of a clearer focus as they began to make At Dawn. This was the album where, for the first time, the band really started to establish the wide-open scope for where they were capable of going.
There were certain facets of early (and later) MMJ that were already simmering on The Tennessee Fire — James’ sighing, wordless chorus for “Heartbreakin Man,” the climactic swell of “The Bear,” the unpredictable sonic shifts of “The Dark” presaging the band’s restless spirit running wild as their career unfolded. Perhaps most importantly, on that first MMJ album, James had crafted a set of songs that felt like Americana and distant descendants of country, but played out as ghosts. There were forms and tropes you might recognize, but rendered as shadowy reflections — something classicist and alien at once. They were still in a similar zone with At Dawn, moving past the lower-fi qualities of The Tennessee Fire and crafting an album that felt a bit more fried, still spacey but also a bit more haggard and whiskey-soaked.
Thanks to At Dawn allowing the band to come into their own as a group, it has a slightly more muscular sound than its predecessor. But perhaps most importantly, it found MMJ more or less immediately solidifying the archetypes that still define their career despite all the twists and turns since. They wrestled the specters of Tennessee Fire into slightly more direct rock forms. At the same time, At Dawn has that cavernous echo that used to be My Morning Jacket’s signature aesthetic. There was James’ voice, already alluring and capacious, amplified by the natural reverb of an empty grain silo, as the band’s oft-mythologized origins often say. There could be rambling acoustic laments and rootsy harmonica peels and straight-up blues-rock soloing, but that atmospheric quality made MMJ something weirder from the start. On At Dawn they sounded neither like devout revivalists nor musicians all that concerned with updating this sound for contemporary times; in one interview from back then, James referenced liking Wilco’s Being There but considered Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a bit “too modern” for his tastes. Instead, My Morning Jacket already seemed like cosmic wanderers, attuned to something else in the air.
When this iteration of the band locked into that sound, holy shit. Some of the all-time MMJ classics date back to At Dawn, songs that bottled up everything this band could be about, but also songs that still left the door open for all kinds of more idiosyncratic sprawls and glittering guitar constellations alike afterwards. This is mainly true of the big At Dawn trifecta. There was the glimmering yet rustic “Lowdown,” a perfect early encapsulation of MMJ’s everyman stargazer persona. Later, there was “Xmas Curtain,” one of those moments where you still don’t really know what the hell James was singing about all these years later but it becomes emotive all the same. That was especially true as James’ voice coasted out on the guitar interplay between him and Quaid — not quite dueling, but lovingly sparring. Then, of course, there’s “The Way That He Sings.”
James wrote “The Way That He Sings” about other singers, of course, in the same way It Still Moves was named for music or nature or other ineffable forces that still have the power to move you. It was like he was writing a bit of prescient, and deeply uncharacteristic, self-mythologizing. How can you hear the name “The Way That He Sings” and not think of James himself, one of the most distinctive and transfixing rock vocalists of his generation? How can you not hear the song itself and not think of that voice? Everything about the song is pure MMJ: James’ drama-building chant in the beginning, how the song kicks in and glides to a languid guitar part over an airy synth backdrop, the way James’ voice draws out the melody, making every note feel sweet and welcoming but also far-seeing. All these years later, the song remains an old favorite for all the MMJ diehards partially because of what that can symbolize, an early-days peak from a singer who’s provided so much comfort for these fans in the ensuing decades. But as a song altogether, “The Way That He Sings” laid the groundwork for what MMJ could be at their best, weaving through a sort of casual, lived-in magic.
While At Dawn helped define this band’s initial sound, it also now feels like a bit of an outlier in their catalog. As was the case on a few other MMJ albums, there’s a looseness on At Dawn — not so much multi-part epics earning their runtime with dramatic payoffs, but acoustic ballads like “Hopefully” or the stalking strut of “Honest Man” taking all the damn time they’d like. The album spreads all the way out, drifting way past the hour mark but with less of the more emphatic checkpoints MMJ would structure other albums with. Part of that that’s related to the fact that At Dawn is often a darker album than MMJ’s reputation would lead you to believe. The album isn’t exactly loose because it’s a big jammed out hang, but because so many of these songs amble and skulk around weird corners. From “Death Is The Easy Way” to “If It Smashes Down” to “I Needed It Most,” James’ ballads in particular have a chilling quality to them here.
Of course there are joyful, funny moments across the album, like the winsome-yet-buoyant “Just Because I Do” or the sun-baked reggae lilt of fan favorite “Phone Went West.” But consider how At Dawn is bookended. “At Dawn” works as a sort of intro and overture, as transporting a curtain rise as MMJ’s biggest openers. There’s James’ voice, beckoning us into the album. But he’s singing words that are perplexing coming from his mouth: “All your life is obscene… But that’s when my knife rises/ Their life ends and my life starts again.” Then across the long distance of At Dawn you find your conclusion in the crushing, beautiful, but harrowing “Strangulation!” The lyrics are sparse for the song’s eight-minute runtime, but James says a lot with them — depicting a couple people dancing close to the edge of life. “I don’t want to feel a thing,” James sings, giving way to a gently resounding chorus of keys and slide guitar. The phrase gets turned over, from a suicidal ideation to the fleeting chance of divine salvation. But soon the song ruptures and mutates, a floating country lament traversing heavy subjects and answering them with, eventually, distorted apocalypse.
It’s not completely unheard of in MMJ’s work — At Dawn’s predecessor, after all, also ended with a song called “I Think I’m Going To Hell.” Darkness dots plenty of My Morning Jacket albums. But never has the yearning in their music felt as consistently melancholic or depressive as it does on At Dawn. When I was first getting into MMJ and they had a handful of albums to their name, I remember At Dawn as the one I had to invest time into — for all the songs I loved, sitting with it too long felt like staring just to the side of some void. When I had little context for this band or one album from another, At Dawn was the one I knew just sounded deeply, overwhelmingly sad.
In that sense, the brighter moments of At Dawn are almost positioning the title like you are seeing the sun rise after a long, eerie night. But really, the album was just one chapter in the story of early MMJ. With hindsight, we now know it was a weird middle passage. (Is it possible after all this time it turns out that At Dawn was an Empire Strikes Back to It Still Moves’ Return Of The Jedi? I’m not not saying that.) From here, their sound would crystallize and expand and transcend on It Still Moves, and that album would in turn become an end destination — the furthest expanse possible with MMJ’s old template of celestial Americana, before personnel changes and new dispositions yielded the now constantly shape-shifting seekers we’ve come to know the band as.
There are still some fans who look back to these records the most fondly, who will hold up At Dawn as, maybe, MMJ’s finest moment. And, no doubt, it’s striking, transfixing, a little unnerving in a career that would soon grow more anthemic. But it’s also raw, coming to life. Two decades later, maybe it’s become the album where My Morning Jacket were finishing the work of purging the demons of their youth. And after this long, strange trip, they found themselves greeting a new dawn — and preparing to break their sound open into colors we couldn’t have even imagined then.