According to the lore, My Morning Jacket took its name from a coat emblazoned with the initials “MMJ” that frontman Jim James found in the burned-out husk of his favorite bar. This reminds me of an anecdote from Ira B. Nadel’s Leonard Cohen biography, Various Positions, in which a young Cohen—after reading a book on hypnotism—successfully mesmerizes and undresses the family maid. Both stories, as perfect metaphors for their subjects’ music, seem too good to be true. Just as the hypnotism anecdote ties up Cohen’s libido and mysticism in a neat bow, the coat anecdote neatly illustrates the animating force behind My Morning Jacket’s music. The band wanders the gutted scaffolding of musical memory, judiciously plucking genre scraps from the wreckage to augment its heterogeneous rock music.
Hailing from Louisville, Ky., My Morning Jacket started out playing Southern rock as if it were indie rock, or maybe vice-versa: Both of these categories are vague enough that the affinities seemed more like spiritual than practical postures. From Southern rock, the band took a sense of supple ease; from indie rock, a sense of sonic adventurousness and a bent toward self-invention. You could tell that these were people who grew up listening to Skynyrd and Built to Spill with equal affection. Even then, it was difficult to consign them to a single genre, as their Southern-rock leanings opened up spaces for country and psychedelic flourishes.
The psychedelic influence was driven home by the buckets of reverb slathered over the instrumentation and vocals, which made James sound as if he were singing from the far end of a dark subway tunnel. MMJ’s 2003 album It Still Moves was so loose and rambling that it verged on jamband territory, while 2005’s Z—the band’s most bizarre and style-specific album to date—dialed down the reverb and cranked up the synths to reveal a barren, alien landscape with sections of weedy reggae and dub. On Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket is still nominally a Southern-rock band, although its relationship to the genre seems more abstract than ever. James and co. are beginning to resemble Yo La Tengo more than any Southern-rock forebears: a band not just appropriating—but adroitly assimilating—any genre it pleases.
Evil Urges implies that My Morning Jacket might be officially done with its over-reliance on reverb to create atmosphere. The album is comprised of bright, tidy, mostly happy-sounding music with light effects washes, deft but unfussy percussion, crunchy yet clean chord attacks and loose, soaring solos. If it’s still “druggy,” it’s a bong hit at a lakeside barbecue rather than the dark, paranoid dirges of some of the band’s earlier music. And the album forgoes Z’s more constant style for deft pastiche, which amplifies the carefree sense that this is music for top-down convertibles and fishing trips. The title track seems to assemble itself piece by piece: a comb-filtered synth burble and a gleaming guitar lead sketch the foundation as the percussion drops in at a restrained gallop; the guitar starts to syncopate James’ falsetto soul vocals; and the whole apparatus capers toward a driving, melodic bridge and a gospel-rock climax. “Highly Suspicious” is one of a couple bang-on Prince tributes, with its bump ’n’ grind rhythm, chirpy lead vocals and awesomely over-the-top Teutonic backing vocals. The percussion-light “Sexiest Librarian” evokes twee British folk with its wafting arpeggios and doe-eyed verses, and the hitch-and-roll of “Thank You Too” lights up with soft-rock string arrangements. “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream” splits up into two parts, the first a dreamy yet propulsive indie-rock ballad, the second a funk-rock epic. The album’s variation is delightful yet seamlessly blended. Band of Horses might sound like this if it cared to make some summer songs amid all its autumnal ones, and didn’t feel overly constrained by rock-music traditions.
Of course, My Morning Jacket saved some room on the disc for rock burners: The fireball riffs of tracks like “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants” should appease fans who still look to the band for straight-up rock gymnastics. Evil Urges has a little something for everybody, and at a time when albums often consist of a few peaks and a lot of filler, it’s remarkably consistent, mostly lacking extreme highs and lows. It speaks of a band working hard at its craft, continually expanding its musical vocabulary while holding fast to roots that are increasingly hard to see from the elevation to which the band has risen—but those roots, undeniably, are still there.