The first time I heard about My Morning Jacket was when Mojo Magazine got themselves into a fizzle of excitement about them a few years back. Apparently they’d already released a couple of albums which had crept in under the radar, but Mojo had them tipped as the next big thing on no better authority than Dave Grohl had announced them as his new favourite band for that month. The general impression were that they were a reverb-happy cosmic-Americana act who were the next revolution from the established axis of The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse and given that these acts were among the few contemporary bands I was interested in at the time, I was emboldened to risk a little disposable income on MMJ’s sophomore effort, the apparently well-received At Dawn.
Sadly, I found At Dawn lacking in cohesion and economy – too many songs were stretched beyond reasonable parameters for the sake of ‘finding a groove’ and other, than “Lowdown”, I had few regrets when I took it to the local CD exchange a few months later. A third album It Still Moves was released to significant fanfair a short while later and the band’s career seemed to gather momentum while I remained somewhat ambivalent to their output. When Z was released to high praise a couple of years later I barely blinked and filed MMJ away in my ‘well-respected bands whose appeal alludes me’ cupboard.
Over the next few years my interest in cosmic-Americana dipped as the leading lights of the sub-genre either went wilfully uncommercial (Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev), fell apart due to audience and radio apathy (Grandaddy) or lost the battle with their personal demons (Sparklehorse). Meanwhile MMJ continued what seemed to be a steady creative ascent – the few tunes I’d heard from Z weren’t bad at all and they remained an occasional staple of the more mature monthly music publications throughout the next few years.
A short while ago my curiosity got the better of me and I acquired a copy of Z for a bargain price and attempted to lay my previous prejudices towards MMJ to rest. Not because I felt the need to understand the appeal of the band, but largely because it was an album whose reputation had not diminished long after the initial hype around it had abated.
It doesn’t start promisingly. The first track is relatively forgettable and the title of the second falls prey to the hideously dated fashion of Txt Spk, while not exactly holding the attention either. From here things do pick up though “Gideon” is one of the the tracks I was familiar with outside of the album and even in the context of Z, it’s a strong track. Best of all though is the uncharacteristically upbeat “What a Wonderful Man”, just over two minutes of the type of heart-skipping greatness that the band really should do a lot more of. Elsewhere there’s still a tendency to elongate great songs to a point where they merely become good songs – there’s perhaps five minutes of excess outros and codas throughout Z that could have been shaved off resulting in a punchier album.
What strikes me about Z though is its very obvious place in the timeline of American alt-rock of the last decade. In addition to the obvious cosmic-Americana vibe, there are hints of A Ghost Is Born era Wilco, but it’s also obvious that Band of Horses have been listening closely to MMJ’s career and that Kings of Leon have cribbed more than a few ideas from “Anytime”, one of the album’s strongest songs. Then, when you think you’ve finally stopped playing ‘spot the influence’, Jim James and the rest of the band reach “Knot Comes Loose” and announce that ‘Tonight Matthew we will be Neil Young circa On the Beach’, something which they do far better than any of their contemporaries.
After living with Z for a while now, it’s become obvious I initially underestimated My Morning Jacket, and that over time they have become a better band. They still contain a considerable amount of promise and they certainly have it in them to record an era-defining classic, but Z is something of a flawed release, though I have to say I keep returning to this album with increasing frequency.