An un-ironic call for more “peace and love” might seem out of step in 2021 were it not coming from the mouth of Jim James, lead singer and principal songwriter of My Morning Jacket. WNXP filmed a special session with the band in early September at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, including a live performance of the uplifting single “Love Love Love”, whose lyrics include four repetitions of song title, followed by an exhortation:
The more you give, yeah“Love Love Love”
The more you get now
Go tell it to the world
Like a loving embrace of fans longing to hear from the band, MMJ chose to self-title its ninth record, something artists often do for their debut projects. The album does serve as a reintroduction of sorts to a legendary, live powerhouse that blends exploratory psych-pop songwriting with anthemic southern rock performance.
Members of the band spent the prolonged pause since touring 2015’s The Waterfall (their last original work before My Morning Jacket, out on ATO Records October 23) pursuing side projects and production credits; James released solo albums and collaborated with the Louisville Orchestra while guitarist Carl Broemel notably worked with his fellow Nashvillians in Okey Dokey plus college rock favorites The Futurebirds. MMJ only played a handful of shows together in 2018 and 2019, but when the band reconvened and reignited creatively pre-pandemic, the members’ utmost priority was controlling their own revived studio sound.
This is the first record they’ve produced and mixed themselves without outside input. On it, they merge dueling guitar noodling, explosive drums and ethereal organ tones with storybook lyrics and backing vocal “ahhhs.” It’s futuristic, but not robotic, since they have never, as a five-piece, fully separated from the rock ‘n roll roots they keep nourished when they jam.
Even the compact tunes, but especially the three My Morning Jacket songs clocking in over seven minutes, deliver the crescendos that fans have come to expect and crave in live settings, and that have earned the group earned world renown. “In Color” — the song that explicitly addresses that peace and love that James says we’re missing and need to “wake up” to once again — is classic Jacket: an exploration of acoustic, pedal steel and sludgy, electric guitar textures, complete with a key change and dueling solos between James and Broemel. Like a storm, the song builds slowly, whips into chaos, and then clears and calms before James repeats the opening stanza. “The Devil’s in the Details” is a meandering stream that gives way to a jazzy outro. “I Could Never Get Enough” features a dreamy chord progression that ascends into space, and makes for a quite fitting album closer.
Thematically throughout My Morning Jacket, the band identifies our damaging, collective penchant for division and distraction — the “Screen time addiction replacin’ real life and love” referenced during “Regularly Scheduled Programming” is an attack on most of us, frankly — while maintaining gratitude during a rundown of the pros and cons of playing music for a living (“Lucky to Be Alive”). “Complex” pairs fuzzed-out guitars with James screaming, “You get what you pay for!”
The sensation throughout the record is that the group is tuned in to the state of the world, but committed to the beauty of a collective experience: the experience of feeling, even when it’s suffering. I’m gratefully tuning back into My Morning Jacket as we slog through this gorgeous mess together.
On the Record: A Q&A With My Morning Jacket
Celia Gregory: Jim and Carl, to have you guys back in town together for a little stop between tour dates is really special, especially since you have a new record out coming out. It’s your ninth full-length, but it’s self-titled. Is this an introduction to My Morning Jacket this number of years later? Why self-titled now?
Jim James: It’s our first record. It’s our debut album. We figured for your debut, it’s good to just kind of use your self-titled thing and then the next one will probably be called One and then Two and then Three and so on.
But uh, no, I just I’ve always really liked the self-titled thing. Whenever I’ve seen that, when people do that, there’s something so special about it. We didn’t know if we would make another record ever again. So when we did, I felt like it was cool to just say, “Here we are,” you know, not make another declaration with the album title.
Carl Broemel: [Well, also, we produced it ourselves.] That was one of the new things for this record, so it sort of felt nice to call it [My Morning Jacket].
CG: Composition-wise, this does, to me, feel like very quintessential live My Morning Jacket. Is it because you got all together in an isolated setting to write these songs and lay them down? It seems like a lot of the jams from the sessions stayed the final album versions. Three of the songs are over seven minutes long. Was that intentional, or did the spirit of improvisation when writing the songs just carry through because you produced it yourselves?
JJ: Yeah, we try to leave room for God, leave room for the spirit, you know, and figure out the song and then leave room for things to happen. Because it was just the five us, we figured out —it only took us 20 years — if you put anybody else in the room, things change. Not that we don’t love all the people we’ve worked with over the years or whatever, but when it’s just the five of us, we can be a little more vulnerable, a little more expressive and we can communicate easier. I know how to run a recording studio and Carl does, too. We can do all of these things, so it was really nice to just be the five of us. We kind of enter the void and we’ll just play a song round and round and round, so there’s no beginning or end.
CG: So you just see what sticks? Some of them, you let yourselves explore and you kept all of that?
CB: Yeah. And sometimes in the studio, the most difficult thing is knowing that you’re recording. So you have to kind of trick yourself into forgetting that that is happening.
CG: We got so many great songs here in this session. “Lucky To Be Alive” is playful, but it does refer to the life of a touring band and maybe the burnout associated with that. Now these songs are a couple of years old. It was pre-pandemic that you laid them down. So what did you find energy-wise that refreshed you enough to come back and do this again and to really be out here as a band?
JJ: I think we rediscovered in 2019, after we had a few years off, we played some shows together that felt really special and rekindled the flame, as they say. And we just went with that. It was funny because we made this record and we were all hyped up to go and then the pandemic hit, and kind of sidelined everybody. As we all take it day by day in this new weird, ongoing pandemic world, it’s just more and more — for me, at least — I am just trying to value every day, because tomorrow is never promised. You don’t know when and what could happen, so I think we just are really trying to enjoy playing together, enjoy the moment, enjoy the day because who knows what tomorrow holds?
CG: We have a lot of new material for fans seeing you live because of Waterfall II [previously recorded material released as an LP in 2020]. And then this self-titled record. Do these new songs feel different energetically now that you’re playing live again, different than some of the old stuff with folks singing along to everything?
JJ: Definitely. I think it feels really different because we didn’t know if we’d be able to come back. And even when we came back, it’s like we didn’t know if we’d be able to come back. You know, would we have everything get shut down? And still, who knows what the rest of this tour could hold? It could be shut down at any minute for any reason. So for me, playing every one of these songs, it’s like, you’re playing for your life — you’re playing with your life, and you’re trying to get as much as you can out of it and to see the joy on people’s faces out there and to connect with people in that way. That human connection, we all need it so much. The pandemic was killing me, just to not see people. Ugh, it’s brutal! So to be back there out with with people as part of that experience is just…it’s amazing.
CG: A lot of the themes on this record, too, are about how we DO need each other and we’re stronger together and the unity message, especially “In Color.” So even now that people are tired and scared and sad for different reasons and our differences are being illuminated still more than even when you wrote this song, what do you want people to get out of this message in this album dropping now?
JJ: I just want there to be more love. I think we’re capable of so much more than what we we have been doing. Things like social media have been ripping us apart. And in the government, there’s so much “divide and conquer” going on, I think we all just need to keep saying to each other, “Wake up!” We don’t have to live this way. We don’t have to be divided and conquered. We can look and find the beauty, celebrate the beauty between ourselves, celebrate the rainbow of not only humanity, but the rainbow of every living being and how it all is so beautiful and everything that everybody brings in from their different walks of life makes life amazing. Why should that be a problem between us? So I feel like that’s a message that we’re trying to spread — just as much peace and love as possible.