Hello everyone and welcome back to Day 16 of the r/indieheads Album of the Year 2020 Write-Up series, the daily series where the users of r/indieheads write about their favorite albums of the year for the duration of December. Today is our halfway point for this year’s series and to commence that, we’ve got u/ProbablyUmmSure talking My Morning Jacket’s sequel to their beloved 2015 album, The Waterfall II.
July 10th, 2020 – ATO
My Morning Jacket formed in Louisville, Kentucky in 1998. That original lineup consisted of vocalist/guitarist Jim James (his real name being James Edward Olliges Jr.), guitarist Johnny Quaid (James’ cousin), bassist Tom Blankenship, and drummer J. Glenn (Danny Cash would soon join the band as keyboardist the following year). The band released its first album in 1999 The Tennessee Fire to moderate acclaim in the state, but a surprise success in Europe, specifically the Netherlands.
To record the follow-up album, the band retreated to Johnny Quaid’s farm in Kentucky to record At Dawn. This album is where the band would find more success in the US. James’ childhood friend, Patrick Hallahan, would replace J. Glenn on tour in support of At Dawn. Touring and live performances would define the band and they began gaining a larger following while supporting bands such as Guided by Voices and the Foo Fighters. They would go on to sign to label RCA/ATO Records and release their third album It Still Moves in 2003. Following the release of It Still Moves, Johnny Quaid would leave the band and Carl Broemel would replace him at lead guitar and Bo Koster would join the band on keys. In 2005, the new lineup would ditch the alt-country of previous releases on 4th album Z which garnered even more critical acclaim and considered one of the best albums of the 2000s. The band would continue to tour relentlessly throughout the early 2000s and the 2006 live album Okonokos would capture that live energy of the band for everyone to hear. Evil Urges in 2008 would continue to push the boundaries of the band’s sound. The result was less favorable for critics, but did continue to gain the band more fans with the alternative radio play of “I’m Amazed” and an episode of American Dad devoted to the band.
The new decade would see the release of 2011’s Circuital and 2015’s The Waterfall which combined elements from all previous releases. After the release of The Waterfall and subsequent tour, the band went on hiatus (with the exception of performances at their One Big Holiday festival in Mexico). James released the solo albums Eventually Even (2016), Tribute to 2 (2017), and Uniform Distortion and Uniform Clarity (2018). The entire band minus James toured with Ray LaMontagne in support of his 2016 album Ouroboros (also produced by Jim James). Carl Broemel released his solo albums 4th of July and Wished Out in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Bo Koster toured with Roger Waters on his most recent tour. In 2020, a sequel to the 2015 album was released simply titled The Waterfall II.
Review by u/ProbablyUmmSure
For all the personal feelings that defined the year 2020, self-reflection will probably be overlooked. At some point this year, I imagine most people took stock of their lives in some form or fashion. With all travel plans and concerts canceled, the only time I’d leave the house was for groceries and walks around my neighborhood. In a year of social distance, I met and talked to more neighbors than ever before (no doubt due to everyone seeking some kind of face-to-face connection). And while walking I have had plenty of time to think about life, the uncertainty of the future, and mulling over the mistakes of the past. So unsurprisingly, My Morning Jacket’s frontman, Jim James, also engaged in walking during this time. And on one such walk, he heard the unreleased song, “Spinning My Wheels” through his headphones and felt that it needed to be released into the world. And thus began the process of releasing the band’s 8th album, The Waterfall II.
In the lead up to the original The Waterfall album in 2015, there were rumors the band had enough material for a double album. After release, those rumors transformed into the band releasing a companion album. But for whatever reason, My Morning Jacket toured The Waterfall and then splintered off into various side projects and solo endeavors, never releasing the mysterious second album. Hailed as a “return to form” by some, the 2015 album saw My Morning Jacket balance the late period sounds of Circuital and Evil Urges with some of the festival rockers of It Still Moves and Z. At the time I felt the album was fan service for those who had given up since the band lost its critical following of the early/mid aughts. A strong attempt at recapturing the magic that once made this band so essential. I have come around to really enjoy that 2015 album, but I thought little of its sister album since the release. In fact, at one point many in the fandom grew to believe that the band would dissolve and The Waterfall would serve as the bands’ swan song. But in a year of many surprises, the announcement of the The Waterfall II was a shocker.
So I echo James’ opinion that “Spinning My Wheels” (and the entire album) needed to be released in 2020. The song may have become the definitive musical piece for that period of my year. While both Waterfall albums deal with love lost, the lyrics resonated in a way that they could only work this year. The lyric of “Gotta find a way out” spoke to the feeling of claustrophobia I assume many felt while trapped at home. The chorus of “just spinning my wheels” becoming a motto as the days bled into one another. The cathartic tweak to “done spinning my wheels” serving as the lone optimistic note missing from much of my life at the time. The song is just one example of an album filled with lyrical illusions to isolation that are completely recontextualized in 2020 and would no doubt have been glossed over had these songs been included in a deluxe version of the The Waterfall.
Another oddly prescient song is the album standout “Feel You”, a Pink Floyd-indebted cosmic ballad about yearning for physical connection. And although the song’s theme is related to the aftermath of a relationship, the lyrics weirdly made me miss the connections of all the loved ones in my life. A desire to “Feel You” when the act is impossible. The lyrics are vague, but kind of enchanting at the same time. James’ longing vocal singing “makin’ time, to waste time, to feel time, wash over you” hit that same high that Roger Waters delivers on songs like “Breathe (In the Air)”. It’s a warm, nostalgic bit of comfort food that I desperately needed in 2020, and I must not have been alone because “Feel You” became My Morning Jackets’ first Billboard Adult Alternative #1 hit this past September. How did this band keep this one on the back burner for 5 years? How did this not find a place on the 2015 album?
As long as I have worked on this write-up, I have tried to sequence both Waterfall albums into one alternate universe double album. I went at it from every angle (trying to sequence like the band’s early albums, sequencing like the last few albums, spacing out rockers vs the pensive songs, drop songs completely, add some of James’ solo songs from his various albums). What I ultimately came up with (which may be the same result the band came to) is that these two collections of songs had to exist separate from one another. The Waterfall II arrives more like the inverse to the first (more abstract, somber, and delivered in a time when none of these songs can be experienced live). But to consider this album a b-side compilation filled with studio leftovers from 2015 is doing a great injustice to this band. I’d argue that this release delivers My Morning Jacket their tightest and best album since 2005’s Z.
Similar to Z, The Waterfall II is wildly varied. The upbeat parlor intro of “Climbing The Ladder”, the Beach Boy/McCartney-ish chorus of “Still Thinking”, the reverb groove of “Magic Bullet” that evokes the bands (unfairly) maligned Evil Urges. This a band trying everything and why not? My Morning Jacket has officially entered the “Legacy Indie” period of their career, a time when artists like The Hold Steady, M. Ward, The Flaming Lips, and Guided By Voices continue to put out good music, but little if any critical attention is paid toward them. I’m also not ignorant that these artists also fall within the “dad rock” genre as well, but the fact remains that they are just not hip or cool enough for publications like Pitchfork to cover in 2020. It’ll be interesting to see how and if these artists that made it big in the 90s/00s are covered over the next decade and how the coolest bands of my youth will ultimately fall into the same path (The Strokes fans may be experiencing this transition in real time right now). So what happens when the critical community abandons a band? Ultimately, things either get more interesting or a chase for the past begins.
The band’s past is best exemplified in a song like “Wasted”, the “can’t wait to see it live” cut from the album. The massive riffs, 6+ minute run time, and guitar solos are things that this band has done well for going on two decades. My Morning Jacket is the best live band of its generation and a song like Wasted seem primed for the extended jam transformation that songs like “Phone Went West”, “Run Thru”, “Mahgeetah” and “Circuital” have previously gone through. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the current iteration of the band’s sound (guitar solos and crashing cymbals that recall the alt-country rockers of the first three albums mixed with bombastic horns that have popped up on the recent albums). It’s the type of song that needs to be experienced live, but I am not the type of MMJ fan that has to have my face melted to enjoy their music.
The band premiered this album on a YouTube livestream and a couple thousand people tuned into watch, so the band has its dedicated fan base and I wonder how they’ll handle the aging of this band in particular. Obviously there are the diehards (like myself) who are along for the ride no matter what. But My Morning Jacket has a unique problem compared to their indie rock peers: a good portion of people only come for the “Wasted” style rockers and argue that the weakness of the band has been the recent run of mellow releases. It’s an opinion that somewhat splinters the fandom and I’d argue that Jim James is too good of a songwriter to cast aside his softer songs. “Wasted” is tailed by one such song in “Welcome Home” which previously appeared on one of the band’s Christmas EPs. Curiously added to this album, the song still resonates the warmth that comes with the holidays (needed for when the feeling is in such short supply). The feel good sing-along on “Run It” may be overlooked on another album, but on here it strikes a nice mid-tempo balance and empowers everyone to keep going. So to some fans My Morning Jacket did not provide a grand rock opus in 2020, but they did provide an album whose themes uniquely spoke to the current moment in a positive, uplifting fashion (which in my opinion was more necessary).
I have done my own sort of reflection on my relationship to My Morning Jacket in 2020. I have spent a good portion of the year re-listening to their entire discography, rediscovering old favorites and finding new ones as well. I have reconfirmed my opinion that they are my all time favorite band and I would put their catalog against any of the 2000s indie bands. I have enjoyed the output from all the individual members since 2015, but I still pine for a new album, and as much as I want to put all these 2020 meanings on the songs of The Waterfall II, these songs still belong to 2015. While legacy indie bands often get stuck in the past, this is a band whose future is still bright. If 2015 could yield the output of The Waterfall and The Waterfall II then this band still has a vast well to draw from. So until that next album comes, I will happily be “spinning my wheels” listening to this year’s stellar release.
Oh, makin’ time, to waste time
To feel time, oh, wash over you
Are we under covers raining blood?
REM covers, ‘Reign In Blood’
You can’t run my life, run my time
I’m gonna run you out the door
Said I don’t need it, don’t need you anymore
Where do you personally rank this album in My Morning Jacket’s discography?
Could this album work as a double LP with The Waterfall?
How do you view My Morning Jacket in the current indie rock landscape?
Thoughts on “Legacy Indie” and other bands that are beginning to age into this period of their careers?
And where does this album rank on your AOTY list?
Thank you to u/ProbablyUmmSure for their write-up! Up tomorrow, we’ve got u/thedoctordances1940 making the save for us by covering Andy Shauf’s latest LP, The Neon Skyline. In the meantime, discuss today’s album in the comments and see the schedule below for the rest of the series, including all previous write-ups this year.