Don't stop believin'
My Morning Jacket raises rock's stakes with It Still Moves
It's no great revelation that rock 'n' roll, from its inception, has been about youth. Little Richard's wap-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom, Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and Elvis' swiveling hips all sprang from the same collective consciousness like a primal yowl, as the ignored, repressed and patronized youth of the '50s chucked Sunday dinner in Mom and Dad's face and demanded some attention.
By the mid-'60s this petulant kick in the teeth blossomed into idealism: Not only are We here, We're going to change the world! When the world didn't quite cooperate, bitterness and cynicism crept in. First, it was the Velvets and the Stooges, then a decade later the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the punk devolution. It wasn't the lyrics that signified this change, it was the music. Where Sgt. Pepper's, Pet Sounds or Eat A Peach burst forth with the wild, expansive sounds of possibility, White Light/White Heat, Raw Power and "Anarchy in the U.K." were fraught with the taught, jagged sounds of that possibility contracting.
That's obviously an absurdly simplistic view of the first 25 years of rock, but it can certainly be argued that rock has never fully rebounded from that first loss of innocence. Artifice ruled the roost through the '80s. Whether it was pancaked soft-pop or hair-metal, ambition bled into bombast, in service of little more than self-gratification, self-glorification or self-pity. Granted, some of it sounded unbelievably great, but the jaded had stayed jaded. Possibility had been snuffed out. Nirvana, grunge and alt-rock did little to bring it back, serving more as a stylistic refresher course of the previous four decades of rock, while maintaining a worldview that hadn't changed much in the previous two. The current decade's most significant rock storyline so far — the Strokes, the White Stripes and the sneering garage-rock movement that may one day follow in their wake — seems unlikely to alter this course much.
I bring all this up not as a launching pad to argue that the Shelbyville, Ky., band My Morning Jacket is here to save rock 'n' roll — to restore its lost innocence or any other such nonsense. Rather, merely as a context for describing why the group's third album, It Still Moves, sounds intangibly different from the music world around it. You can trace the guitar chords, the drum patterns, the bass lines and damn near every sound on the record easily back to the band's well-tapped antecedents: the Allmans, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, the Stones. Musically, MMJ are not innovators, they're simply Über-talented inheritors. But their songs do more than fetishize the '60s and '70s; they're bound with the hopefulness of youth.
These guys aren't too young to be jaded, they've just chosen the path of possibility. You can hear it in the way they play. The opener, "Magheetah," goes on forever without wearing out its welcome. After three solid minutes of bright, pearly guitar and piano refrains juxtaposed with frontman Jim James' sympathetic, multi-tracked coos, the song winds down to the point where we've been conditioned to assume it'll just fade out. But then, instead, it gets bigger — organ and guitar licks soar, a chorus of angelic voices chimes in, massive timpani rolls — building to a huge, breathless finish. "Dancefloors" expands from an Allmans-style boogie into a chooglin' Memphis soul shakedown. When the horns blindside you three-and-a-half minutes in, they're exactly what you were waiting for without even knowing it, simultaneously audacious and completely sensible.
On the band's last effort, 2001's At Dawn, James' vocals seemed thin and wispy; the band's sound often felt hollow. Both have filled out considerably here — James discovering depth and range he never knew he had in his high-pitched voice, and the band finding a host of warm, vivid accessories to flesh out its massive sound. On the subdued, wondrous "Golden," it's simply a twangy, slide guitar and a crafty backbeat, as James' attempts to capture the near-physical rush that the very act of playing music can create.
Of course, music about music can be a dodgy undertaking: It often devolves into music about the music business (ugh) or songs about how great their makers are (egad). But with MMJ, it's about the surrealistic swell of emotions and impulses that music can conjure. "One Big Holiday" could be the group's "Born to Run," without sounding remotely like it. A mesmerizing guitar line dances through its opening moments, building the tension, before exploding into a breathless frenzy of glorious rock 'n' roll escapism.
On the hazy, psychedelic "I Will Sing You Songs," James promises, "I will sing to you of greater things/... stories of the greater years." From the way the song sways to a majestic apex, then morphs into a dubbed-out bounce as it fades to black, it's easy to believe him. "Easy Morning Rebel," a dark, bluesy stomp that blossoms into a wild, horn-besotted gospel freak-out, and "Run Thru," which follows the expressive wails of a mournful guitar into a furious drum-led instrumental breakdown, further extend MMJ's reach.
You could argue — I wouldn't, but you could — that these songs are too long; all but two are over five minutes, and three are over seven. Or that the record itself stretches on too long — nearly 72 minutes. You could point out that the lyrics mostly range from burnt-out hippie wisdom ("It wasn't until I woke up that I could hold down a joke or a job or a dream/But then all three are one in the same") to just plain burnt ("The brain melts in the twilight/With the boar and moving trees"). But that's what ambition sounds like. James' songs aren't stories, they're rolling streams of images. Why get caught up in lyrical minutiae when making musical proclamations so sweeping and grand?
These guys haven't yet figured out how to consistently cram their whole lives into three-and-a-half minutes. They haven't figured out the right words to use, either. Their reach consistently exceeds their grasp. But the very act of trying, of reaching, of steadfastly believing that rock 'n' roll can both say everything and mean everything — that's nothing less than revolutionary.