My Morning Jacket are never ones to shy away from a gleaming spectacle. The cover art for their surprise new album The Waterfall II would fit snugly within photographer Austin Prendergast’s translucent Instagram collection. Orange light maintains an optimistic focus as the surrounding areas feel cold, blurry, and ultimately overshadowed.
It makes sense that the group of Jim James, Tom Blankenship, Patrick Hallahan, Carl Broemel, and Bo Koster would go the route of limelight clarity on the sequel to their 2015 original. On the first installment of The Waterfall series, the Kentucky natives reveled in cautious optimism as different pigments of color sprawled across their canvas without much guarantee. The “waterfall” becomes a human mind, unable to stop itself from presenting a dichotomy between hope and hopelessness.
The sequel (which was originally supposed to be a part of the original Waterfall) functions in a more restorative vain, both mentally and physically (though there are some strains of vigilance). It’s easy to see why the band wanted to split the music into two projects. If the sun was setting on The Waterfall, then it’s slowly rising again on this newest installment almost a half decade later. Take “Spinning My Wheels,” a gradual slow burner reminiscent of Mazzy Star or Beach House. James reflects and rejuvenates, breaking past his demons with light tonalities and reserved gaudiness (“And it sure don’t matter where they put you in the ground/The only point of thinking is to break the spell/To love another day and live to tell”).
The Waterfall II continues this psychedelic folk streak the band’s been on for quite some time. It’s a style Whitney’s cultivated over the years, pure escapism that’s still grounded in reality. “The First Time” operates in this lane of rustic collage rock, where James melts beneath the contemplative keys with a meditative perspective (“I wonder where the time went?”).
From a general standpoint, the band does a lot of “thinking” across these ten tracks. They muse on second guesses (“Still Thinkin'”), lack of reciprocity (“Beautiful Love” (Wasn’t Enough)”), and attainable catharsis (“Welcome Home”) among other things. James takes accountability for a lot of his romantic mishaps, and shows a good deal of vulnerability as a songwriter. He uses metaphorical imagery to display heartbreak and healing, walking a fine line between madness and renewal. “Magic Wand” does a nice job capturing the madness portion through jittery guitar playing and high-strung echoes. The needle moves away from the folksy psychedelia for just a quick moment.
If there’s one thing The Waterfall II confirms from a stylistic standpoint, it’s that My Morning Jacket hasn’t changed one bit. They can still craft solid tunes with warmth and intimacy, but there’s points where I wish they wouldn’t always go back to their default setting. It’d be nice if they sometimes matched their grand themes with even grander production, or even experimented outside of their core five instruments. There’s a level of predictability found within some of these tracks due to a lack of innovation.
As an entire product though, The Waterfall II is tightly-woven, wholly genuine, and admirably sensitive. It’s perfect for your fall soundtrack.