My Morning Jacket have always made classic rock seem relevant in our day and age, because the Kentucky boys never fooled themselves into thinking that human existence collapsed into oblivion the day Skynyrd’s plane went down. They’ve got a way of filtering realist anxiety into their ambitious trippiness, droning as much they’ve jammed, while working every available nuance out of a sound that flips history’s narrative by simultaneously imagining Radiohead as choogling pastoralists and the Allman Brothers as self-aware indie-rock kids. In recent years, main man Jim James has largely been focusing on solo work, chasing various whims on records like 2016’s politically-tinged Eternally Even, 2018’s loose scuzz-guitar party Uniform Distortion, and 2019’s The Order of Nature, a set done in collaboration with the Louisville Orchestra.
My Morning Jacket, their first album of new material since 2015’s The Waterfall (and their follow-up to last year’s archival stopgap The Waterfall II), finds the band very much in their comfort-rock comfort zone. While there isn’t a ton here that forwards their narrative, the sense of being in a studio blasting away right as shows and festivals begin to open again is palpable. The tightly coiled “Penny For Your Thoughts” and the KISS-tinged “Complex” seem uniquely designed to reach way back into the depths of huge outdoor crowds and make a connection. They feel it so deeply, in fact, that the lighthearted “Lucky to Be Alive” is basically an advertisement for getting back on the road, albeit with a tinge of streaming-era irony: “They cut off all the bread that used to keep us fed/So thanks for coming to the show,” James offers with a smiling shrug.
As always, James is here to puzzle through the mysteries and letdowns of everyday life and hopefully pull out some wisdom. “Regularly Scheduled Programming” opens with James lamenting a buffet of modern bummers (“screen time addiction replacing real life and love”), as an ominously throbbing groove opens up into an epic display of gospel-rock fireworks. “Love Love Love” proposes koan-y rejoinders to the aforementioned alienation, as James tells us to be excellent to each other and angelic vocals merge with sweeping Seventies arena guitars. They hit a particularly high note with “I Never Could Get Enough,” an eight-minute bath of romantic yearning, warm rusticity, and prog drift, with James sounding like back-to-the-land Bob Dylan reborn as a psychedelic soul crooner.
What keeps MMJ interesting is that their music never becomes too comfortable. It’s a spectacular vision where nothing ever seems quite settled. On the nine-minute “The Devil’s in the Details,” the music swirls soothingly in a magnolia-scented astral-doo-wop slipstream, while the lyrics reflect harder realities: “Rolling up to the mall, amidst the fruits of slavery,” James sings, suggesting Southern rock by way of the 1619 Project, at once musically sweet and subversive. When he sings, “There’s more to life than just black and white,” on “In Color,” it sounds like a bromide, but as the music shifts from reflective and pretty to an apocalypse of guitar-druid fury, the message seems to be that embracing ambiguity is a scary process, but one worth going for all the same. It’s the sound of a band that remains rock’s most reliably down-to-earth mystics.