The Waterfall II: My Morning Jacket’s Psychedelic Return to Music

The Waterfall II: My Morning Jacket’s Psychedelic Return to Music

Five years after the release of career-highlight LP The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket unearths its long-awaited follow-up with a newfound relevance. 

Following five years of radio silence from Louisville-based rock group My Morning Jacket, the long awaited sequel to their 2015 LP The Waterfall has at last surfaced – squashing any remaining doubt of its mere existence. The ten tracks of The Waterfall II were the result of a particularly fruitful writing and recording session for The Waterfall, taking place in a quaint Northern Californian town nestled between the Muir Woods and the coastline. Frontman Jim James equated the environment to “living on our own little moon”, and it’s hard to ignore the qualities of both otherworldliness and seclusion on this record.

Originally considered for a joint release with The Waterfall, I wonder if these additional tracks were born premature – that they were meant to be heard several years into the future when they would be met with newfound pertinence. I’ll admit, upon hearing the name The Waterfall II I considered the possibility that this record would simply be a continuation  of The Waterfall– a B-side little sister that didn’t require five years of intermission to assert. Its positioning relative to its career-highlighting predecessor and expectation that that quality would be sustained might doom a similar record from a less-capable band. Yet while I would still describe The Waterfall II as The Waterfall’s moody sister by way of conception, this latest work from My Morning Jacket has doubtlessly taken on its own identity. It’s not an afterthought, but rather an artistically curated collection of poignant takes on healing and renewal.

The album opens gently on “Spinning My Wheels”, as if to embody the group’s gradual materialization right in front of us after a five-year dormancy. Airy, meandering vocals coupled with illusive piano riffs underscore lyrics lamenting stagnation (“Hypnotized from doing the same thing”) and the refrain, “Just spinning my wheels”. The all-too-familiar sentiment of persistent torpor dissipates with the revelation of what propels the entire album:

“Well, it don’t matter where you settle down
And it sure don’t matter where they put you in the ground
The only point it seems is to break the spell
To love another day and live to tell
Done spinning my wheels.”

 Juxtaposed with the winding tranquility of “Spinning My Wheels” is juke joint tune, “Climbing The Ladder”, a thumping recall of MMJ’s southern rock roots. Fervent drumbeats and retro guitar licks express the optimistic tone the track’s title suggests, although lyrics indicate an underlying recoil from a breakup (“Don’t wanna get anywhere, really / Except back to you”). Retro 70’s aesthetics are carried through onto the following track, “Feel You” – a six minute seductive ballad mourning an unfulfilled desire for closeness. An oceans-wide wall of sound is overlaid by transcendental vocals, almost giving the track a Wish You Were Here air. The psychedelia of this record peaks with a recurring cascading guitar riff that descends into stage-ready instrumentation – a wistful reminder of the majesty that is MMJ’s stage presence (20+ years in the making).

The album highlight arrives on “Wasted” – another stunning six minute track climaxing in arena rock guitar and impactful horns. It’s perhaps the strongest exemplification of MMJ’s multifarious use of genre on this record – coalescing elements of psychedelia, jam band, folk, and southern rock. Multiple tempo changes precede an instrumental breakdown cementing the anthemic status of the track, and we even find lyrical ties to the themes of revelation first seen on “Spinning My Wheels”:

“To anticipate, you’re alone and you know
You done something wrong
You been wasting
Too much time lately
You been gone
An illusion then, but one more pressing.”

 In a soft decrescendo featuring Jim James’ famously adept falsetto, The Waterfall II fades out as delicately as it opened. Spiraling melodies and hypnotic guitar carry the refrain, “I wonder where the time went” – perhaps alluding to the literal passage of time since days spent in that secluded corner of California, or a more metaphorical grappling with idleness. It’s a fitting closure for a record perfect for quarantine companionship – its psychedelic jaunts enrapturing feelings of a boundless present frozen in time.

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