I’ve tried not to like My Morning Jacket and it’s just no use. Just like I temporarily shunned the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and other so-called `jam bands,’ I eventually ended up throwing up the white flag in surrender to experience some pretty great music. I wanted to dismiss It Still Moves as a superfluous country rock record, but in truth, it was so catchy and inventive, I only thought I had heard it all before. I wanted Z‘s arena pop to fall flat on its face, don’t ask me why, but instead, songs like “Gideon” and “Off the Record” were gleefully playing in my mind’s jukebox for months. I can’t explain this somewhat unnatural tendency toward disliking such a great band. But I’m sure you all have one of your own, some act that you just really want to dislike but somehow can’t. And, after hearing Evil Urges the first time through, I thought I finally had my smoking gun, but it only turned out to expel that same old white flag, signaling my surrender to yet another great album by My Morning Jacket.
As I’m sure all of you must have experienced, there are times when, upon listening to a new album, especially from a band you’re familiar with, your attention just seems to slip away. You’re either concentrating on the road due to some adverse conditions, you’re reading something online or in a book and become immersed, or you just go about your day, cleaning or cooking or what have you. But then, that one song comes on. I’m talking about that one song that completely jars you from the experience. Not every album shares this moment, but there seem to be a lot of them. On Evil Urges, that song is “Highly Suspicious.” Despite the fact that most of the album veers toward the funk, the smooth R&B or classic proggy jams, this one still sticks out like I did at the Public Enemy concert in the early ’90s. So, let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? The song is terrible, plain and simple. Many listeners claim it’s similar to Prince. It’s not. It’s more like Cameo’s “Word Up,” but without the fun. This is the one song that made me feel like I finally had my reason to dislike Jim James and company, but the rest of the album more than makes up for this single aberration.
The opening title track grooves along nicely thanks to a funkified rhythm section and James’ Tweedy meets Garcia falsetto. And then there’s that crazy guitar jam in the middle! It’s a hard song not to love and it stays with you for days. If the song reminds me of anything, it’s the grooving classic rock mix the Flaming Lips found with their album, At War With the Mystics. That same feeling holds fast with “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 1,” a song that smoothly flows with equal parts rhythm & blues and a dreamy new age vibe. Upon listening to this second track, you realize you’re not listening to the same My Morning Jacket you may have been following for the last ten years. Instead, it’s become a band that continues to stretch its limits and its comfort zones into new territories, much like Wilco or Radiohead. And, like those bands, MMJ can stretch too far, as they have with “Highly Suspicious,” but I guess in order to make an omelet, you have to write a few crap songs.
Thank goodness “Highly Suspicious,” a song that will forever continue to be skipped on my iPod, is followed by the driving first single, “I’m Amazed.” It’s purely classic MMJ at its finest, and though not as daring as other tracks on the album, it’s incredibly well put together, nearly the equal of the similarly catchy “Off the Record.” “Thank You Too” changes things up again, this time in nearly the opposite direction as the first three tracks, heading toward a mix of ’70s AM guitar rock such as Steely Dan and blue-eyed soul of the same era. So, in other words, it’s like Hall & Oates, and it’s gorgeous. “Sec Walkin” is similarly concocted, with James bending his vocal style a bit over pedal steel that MMJ somehow seem to make fit into a soul number. I couldn’t help but sing “Lyin’ Eyes” along with it, however. “Two Halves,” another catchy soul / doo-wop number in its own right, has its share of wisdom to impart as James sings, “When you’re so young you wanna be older / and when you’re older you want the body you have now.”
“Librarian,” a song about what else, a sexy librarian, recalls the twangy acoustic ballads of Harry Nilsson, especially tracks like “Everybody’s Talkin.'” I have to agree with James, though he finds his own song a bit funny. For example, I think Tina Fey is the perfect woman, sexy, smart and funny all in one package, and she’s been given the `sexy librarian’ tag on her show 30 Rock. The one drawback for this sweet story song is the inclusion of the hipster `funny’ word `interweb.’ It merely pulls the reader out of the story for a cheap `sign of the times’ reference laugh. “Look at You” is quite possibly the sweetest song I’ve heard in years. “Aluminum Park” is pure Springsteenian joy unleashed, sure to be a huge live number, if not already. “Remnants” finds James gleefully channeling Blue Öyster Cult.
But, some of the best songs, other than the gorgeous middle section, are saved until the end with “Smokin from Shootin” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 2.” The former slowly builds from sweet searching ballad into a churning and brakeless runaway train of piano, guitar and drums. The latter, one half of an inner pair of bookends (the other being “Evil Urges” paired with “Good Intentions,” which turns out to be a screeching hellish two-second coda), slinks along to a disco beat and spaghetti western glissandos that make you think you’re listening to Hot Chip cover Ennio Morricone. Then, they give you the fake fadeout and attack you with the menacing guitar and the Eagles’ vocal harmony. In a word, stunning.
And now, throughout the entirety of Evil Urges, we’ve heard at least four `new’ versions of My Morning Jacket, and there’s something for everyone. I hear and read that other MMJ fans actually like “Highly Suspicious.” Good for them. They can have my copy of that particular track, but I’ll keep the rest. Without it, Evil Urges is quite possibly my favorite MMJ album. I doubt after this release many will pigeonhole My Morning Jacket into that `jam band’ role ever again as they seem to blend genres as if lines between them never actually existed. They treat music like we treat our record collections. You see, Ani DiFranco can sit on a shelf sandwiched between New Zealand punks Die! Die! Die! and grunge pioneers Dinosaur Jr. without any ill effects. So, MMJ asks, why can’t the actual music live in coexistence? Country, folk, soul, R&B, disco, prog, in the end it doesn’t matter. Evil Urges, despite its title, is a very good record.