My Morning Jacket - Z
My Morning Jacket are a Kentucky five-piece with lots of hair, Flying V guitars and loud, vibrant live shows. Their first three albums - 1999's The Tennessee Fire, 2001's At Dawn and 2003's It Still Moves - were recorded at a farm: sprawling, reverb-drenched country-rock epics that have all attracted critical acclaim and drawn inevitable comparisons with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young. Alternately haunting and rambunctious, they do require a bit of effort on the listener's part; they clock in at around 75 minutes apiece and their heady sonic textures are the sort of thing you probably have to be in the mood for. But like all good records, they reward persistence: these are heavily-wrought gems; albums to wrap yourself up in and surround yourself with.
Z is different. Every so often, a band makes an album so shattering and so unexpected that it grabs you by the throat and demands your attention. Radiohead did it with OK Computer, the Flaming Lips with Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots; you can hear both influences - and many more besides - in this disc, but My Morning Jacket are very much their own band, and with Z they defy categorisation. It is a bold departure; the best record they have made to date. At under an hour, it's shorter, tighter, groovier and, paradoxically, more expansive. It still has that stamp of familiarity that tells you it's a My Morning Jacket album, but it twists and turns in an astonishing manner.
My Morning Jacket moved away - literally as well as musically - to record Z, relocating to an upstate New York studio and enlisting John Leckie (The Stone Roses, Radiohead's The Bends) to co-produce with frontman and principal songwriter Jim James. The band also underwent a change of personnel - guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboard player Danny Cash both left after It Still Moves and were replaced by Carl Broemel and Bo Koster respectively. These changes - as well as James' continuing growth as a musician - have doubtless influenced the sound.
Z opens gently with Wordless Chorus, a lazy, lilting song with an organ chugging away behind understated, staccato guitar. The chorus is exactly as the title suggests, composed entirely of "Oohs" and "Aahs", which gradually sway into a high-pitched climax, Jim James' spiralling falsetto sounding like that of a 70s soul singer and leaving the listener on a magnificent - if a little confused - high (was that really a My Morning Jacket song?).
It Beats For You tumbles in afterwards with shimmering guitars skating over skittish drums, James' reverb turned right back up; it's like The Flaming Lips singing Paranoid Android through a very long tunnel. And this isn't the only point at which it's possible to draw comparisons with Wayne Coyne's mob: What A Wonderful Man is a joyous, ebullient romp that wouldn't sound at all out of place on the Lips' Clouds Taste Metallic - the irony being that the song has a hidden poignancy as James' tribute to a friend who committed suicide (it was, he says, intended as "a goofy, funny tribute").
Off The Record follows immediately afterwards and is even more of a curveball, morphing from a jaunty reggae opening to a mid-song Neil Young guitar wig-out before ending up as a Pink Floyd-style jam, complete with drum machine and - oh, yes - backwards messages (something about Jesus, we understand. Or Lionel, possibly: the debate continues to rage). This is the first single: an audacious choice, but apt, too, because you can't help swaying along to it. And it doesn't sound like anything My Morning Jacket have ever put out before.
But even this doesn't prepare the listener for Z's bizarre, disturbing centrepiece. Into The Woods is a carnivalesque, warped country waltz with creepy circus organs and surreal lyrics (kittens on fire, babies in blenders: you've got to hear it, really). The sequence of songs here is clever; Into The Woods is followed by the brassy Anytime, an unapologetically upbeat tune, Jim James howling like Paul Westerberg and urging you to sing along even if you don't know the words. It breaks the trance immediately.
The closing three tracks move Z into arguably more familar territory. Lay Low is a country rocker that again recalls Neil Young's guitar style as it extends into a glorious, grooving jam towards the end; Knot Comes Loose is a haunting pedal steel guitar and piano ballad and the sprawling, thrilling Dondante is a monumental closer. This is an intense, all-consuming and extraordinary piece of music, apparently inspired by a dream James had about a dead friend; here, his voice soars like Jeff Buckley's before a lingering guitar solo gives way to drums, crashing guitars and James screaming "You had me worried" mid-song before the tempo is lowered right back down again, and it's the music - regardless of the lyrics - that speaks so loudly. It's impossible not to be moved.
Z will leave you speechless, and you'll want to put it on again straight away. It should be the record that breaks My Morning Jacket out of the southern rock clichés critics have built up around them, the release that finally lifts them into the big time. Whether the band would actually want that is, of course, open to debate. But there's a bigger and more pertinent question that raises its head after the album finishes, and it is this: how on earth are they going to follow this up?