“Evil urges, baby,” squeals Jim James in the title track of his band’s fifth studio album. “They be part of the human way!” A slinky funk strut delivered in Prince-like falsetto that blows up into aproggy Southern-rock guitar duel, “Evil Urges” rallies you to “Dedicate your love to any woman or man/No racial boundary lines, no social subdivisions” and notes that “evil” is often in the ear of the beholder.
But coming from a young band whose first three albums earned them a reputation as hairy torch bearers of guitar-driven classic rock, the title is also about messing with expectations. More so than 2005’s mildly experimental Z, Evil Urges explodes the band’s sound with the same kind of creative leap that Wilco took on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Radiohead took on Kid A.
MMJ’s reverence for Neil Young and Crazy Horse is well documented; their Prince fetish less so. They’ve covered “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” live, employed Prince-ly nomenclature (see 2005’s “It Beats 4 U”) and happily mixed drum machines and lengthy guitar jams (see 2002’s space-funk-folk-rock epic “Cobra”).But nothing in their discography could anticipate a song like “Highly Suspicious,” Evil Urges‘ biggest WTF moment. Squeaking out rhymes like”Home alone dotting your i’s/Peanut-butter-pudding surprise!” in helium falsetto over boogie-rock guitar outbursts, drill-sergeant backing vocals and clipped drum spasms, it’s better suited to an I Love the’80s! mix, set between “Little Red Corvette” and Devo’s “Whip It,” than to a My Morning Jacket album. (And, dude, I don’t even want to know what a “peanut-butter-pudding surprise” is.) It’s both hilarious and badass.
MMJ also embrace prog rock — a direction that initially seems at odds with their populist jam-band vibe. But James is determined to have it both ways. The elaborate, shimmering vocal overdubs on “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 1” recall 10cc’s prog-pop landmark “I’m Not in Love.” And the record’s 13-minute tag-team finale, “Smokin From Shootin” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 2,” morphs between Radiohead’s computer-assisted soul, avant-roots rock and a chugging Pink Floyd space anthem. “Oh! This feeling is wonderful! Don’t you ever turn it off!” sings James on the latter song, amid majestic Fender Rhodes chords and Loch Ness monster slide guitar, building to a surprise ending sure to result in thousands of spilled bongs. He could be singing about sex. He could be singing about MDMA. And when he notes how long it’s been since he’s been challenged to think “about the way things are” and “the way they could be,” he could even be singing about a certain presidential candidate. Just as there are innumerable sexual metaphors, James knows sex can be a metaphor for innumerable things.
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Yet you sense that for all his freaky ambition, James is still an old-fashioned guy trying to reconcile his love of tradition with the modern world. One of the record’s standouts is “Librarian,” an acoustic love ballad that’s so archaic it’s clearly a hallucination: The singer wanders through bookstacks (“Since we got the Interweb, these hardly get used”) and sees his crush listening to the Carpenters on AM radio. But songs, like books,invent their own reality, and by the time he reaches the hoary nerd-girl come-on, “Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me,” it’s enough to make you forswear your Amazon account.
There are lots of old-school moments like this on Evil Urges. Some showcase group vocals; for the first time, James’ bandmates sing backup, adding a shaggy richness to the mix. “Two Halves” is a love letter to youth with aFrankie Valli doo-wop touch. “I’m Amazed” is a slow-grind beer-slosher with a hollered good-ol’-boy chorus, while “Sec Walkin'” shows off James’ deep love of Seventies soul. Evil Urges refutes the idea that indie rock these days is too white. It’s a beautifully miscegenatedmess: “Thank You Too” conjures the Stylistics, “Aluminum Park” conjuresthe Replacements, and it’s all good.
That shape-shifting is fitting for a band whose leader recently appeared in white face in Todd Haynes’surreal Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, which dealt with an icon whose music could never be reduced to mere tradition. James seems well aware that any definition of “classic rock” that doesn’t include Prince, Radiohead and Wilco is pretty bereft. Now, with Evil Urges, he can add My Morning Jacket to that list.