Happiness is a hard thing to nail musically. Indeed, recording an album that exudes optimism is in many ways more difficult than turning in a record strife with pain and heartbreak. My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall is a perfect example of the problems a band can encounter while trying to craft an upbeat tone: though the record occasionally nails a sense of genuine joy, on the whole it comes to feel a little bit slight and sappy.
Album opener Believe (Nobody Knows) is nice, but if that sounds like I’m killing the thing with faint praise, that’s because I am. With lyrics that could have been pulled straight from a motivational poster and predictably placed guitar solos, it’s the kind of track that feels forever doomed to be background music. It’s a pleasant listen while it lasts, but it neatly encapsulates the album’s problems: rather than beautifully weightless, it begins to feel airy and insubstantial.
Nonetheless, Jim James’ voice is as wonderful as ever, and his stunning performance on Get The Point impresses, even if it isn’t quite enough to save lines like “I wish you all the love in this world and beyond” from sounding irritatingly saccharine. Thin Line shows off James’ voice once more, but again, the dreamy guitars behind him lack any weight, and begin to float away, leaving little in their wake.
The sonic experimentation on the record’s longer tracks, such as the six minute Spring (Among The Living) is nice, but there’s that word again, and despite the way the song mixes up crashing strings with reverb heavy guitar work, it feels oddly reductive. Album closer, the seven minute long Only Memories Remain isn’t as adventurous, but it suffers from the same problem. Mixing soul influences with extended guitar noodling, it never grips one the way it should, and becomes fluffy and repetitive rather than considered and moving.
The record does contain a few tracks that flirt with darkness, and it’s no coincidence that these are the stand-outs of the album. In Its Infancy (The Waterfall) is still upbeat, but the crashing guitars give it an added weight that makes the cathartic joy of the piece shine, and Tropics (Erase Chances) begins with melancholy guitar work that injects everything else that follows with a touch of heartbreak. It’s the grit and warmth apparent here that so many of the other album’s tracks desperately need.
As a long time My Morning Jacket fan, I came to the album ready to review it in the kindest of terms. But there’s just not enough here to sink one’s teeth into. It’s not terrible, but it is painfully middle of the road; a passing fancy that’s alright when it could have been great.