My Morning Jacket: “Evil Urges”

With Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket seems poised to light the blog-o-sphere on fire-in fact, they caused a fair amount of commotion simply by unveiling the bizarre album artwork, to say nothing of the first single. But say what you will about the band or their new album, one thing is undeniable: there is absolutely nothing about Evil Urges that even comes close to being hip.

Consider the album’s serpentine trajectory: The Kentucky band, best known for their southern-fried, riff-and-reverb rock and roll, kicks things off with an opening trifecta that draws less inspiration from Lynard Skynard than it does prime Prince and Michael Jackson, all funk and falsetto and, on “Highly Suspicious,” a fair amount of camp. Then there’s “I’m Amazed,” the kind of guitar-fueled sing-along that seems tailor-made for waving cigarette lighters or cell phones in a sold-out arena-just a little reminder that MMJ can still pull off the kind of tricks they made their name with, and they can still do it well. From there, they dig into a stretch of steel-soaked songs that touch on soft rock, AM country radio, and James Taylor-style folk, the highlight and album centerpiece being frontman Jim James’ masterful turn as a confessional singer-songwriter on the aching “Librarian.” They eventually get around to cranking out a couple more guitar rockers, then bring things full circle with the eight-minute, album-closing epic, a pulsing, disco-tinged number called “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream.”

Bizarre much? You bet. But it’s a staggeringly remarkable set for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it works perfectly, to say nothing of the fact that they had the guts to try it in the first place. Clearly the men of My Morning Jacket aren’t drinking from the same creative well as the rest of the Pitchfork/indie rock crowd; these are decidedly unhip influences, as if the band’s goal was to show off just how much indie cred they could lose while still crafting an utterly killer record. And killer it is. Forget the weird chamber effects and carnival sound effects of Z; that album drew a lot of praise for its experimentation, but just as much derision for its insularity and sheer weirdness. Evil Urges, on the other hand, is even bolder in its invention and its experimentation, but there’s nothing tentative or stuffy about it. These thirteen tracks are positively alive with the sheer joy of making music, and the album is an absolute monster, a statement of purpose and creative vision that immediately launches My Morning Jacket into the forefront of modern-day rock and roll bands.

There are a couple of reasons why this album-which sounds on paper like it could be a trainwreck, or at least a little schizophrenic-works so well as a lean, graceful rock album. For one thing, there’s clearly a vision here; the weird hodgepodge of influences is a testament to MMJ’s skills as musicians, and the sequencing speaks to their craft as recordmakers. Opening the set with the throwback funk songs was no accident, as it sets the tone for the rest of the album, and there are similar motifs and textures and themes that pop up throughout the record, giving it a unity and a feeling of very deliberate craft. But even more importantly, the album works because, as weird as it may sound on paper, it never flaunts its experimentalism; the emphasis is clearly, always, on the songs, on melody and lyric and vocal. Nothing feels forced; in fact, just about every track here could accurately be described as incredibly beautiful.

We have Jim James to thank for that. With his shaggy hair and scraggly beard, the man looks like he should be playing bass for some mythology-obsessed heavy metal band (or perhaps working as a lumberjack), but beneath his gruff exterior there dwells an exquisitely beautiful crooner, a golden-piped singer who’s just as adept at earnest storytelling as he is funky, super-high falsetto. And his songwriting has never been better. Never mind the fact that he effortlessly pens hooky rockers like “Aluminum Park” and cheerful folk tunes like “Sec Walkin'” right alongside campy, theatrical pop like “Highly Suspicious” and stunning ballads like “Look at You.” What’s surprising is how he’s come into his own as a lyricist. His songs on Evil Urges tease us with multiple meanings, which is not to say that they’ve vague-far from it-but deliciously, deliriously suggestive. “Look at You,” for example, is either a gloriously admiring love song or an intensely personal hymn to the Divine that deserves a place on the shelf beside the best stuff from U2. There’s a complex web of meaning that encompasses everything here, making it a rewarding album about good and evil, love both carnal and divine, loneliness and sorrow, and the hardships of growing up gracefully.

Its mysteries run deep enough that it seems to open up new meaning with every listen, and the music is rich and alluring enough-plus flat-out hooky and enjoyable enough-that spending time with this record is a joy. One certainly doesn’t envy James and Co. the hot glare of the limelight they’re likely to find themselves trapped under, but, then again, if ever there was an album deserving of becoming the Next Big Thing, it’s this one-a towering monster of a rock record that signals the arrival of My Morning Jacket as a superior group of artists.

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