When the summer started, and I had bought countless new albums I've been meaning to get, I told myself I would listen to at least one or two a week. I was successful until I listened to At Dawn by My Morning Jacket, which I have since listened to every day, over and over again.
I enjoy music that cannot easily be categorized into a single genre, because the variety of instrumentation, vocalization, and apparent influences makes an album all the more complete. I've always said that I hate country music, and if I hear the K102 radio station I invariably become quite angry and my head starts to hurt. But some really good bands have country influences, and I am not against that at all(recent additions to my favorites include Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, Brandi Carlile, and of course Ryan Adams). When trying to describe MMJ's sound to newcomers, I've said it's a mix between folk, rock, country, and jam band styles.
Ultimately, though, their sound is their own; clearly rock with southern influences, lead singer Jim James utilizes long phrasing and harmonizing, often soaked with reverberation. The songs are decently long, and I was therefore shocked when I first looked up the lyrics to this album and found that there were so few words. But that's the really amazing thing about their music; they don't need a lot of words to get their ideas and their feelings across--it's all in the way that he sings and the way that the band plays.
The first time I listened to this album, I listened to it straight through, and afterward I knew I'd just heard a masterpiece. I just sat there, and said "wow" to myself. Then I started playing it again. But the true genius of the album didn't hit me until I really started to delve deeper into each individual song, examining the possible meanings behind the lyrics, and focusing on the intricacies of the music itself. The songs on this album cover the spectrum of human emotion, and a great deal of relevant experiences, especially with respect to relationships (obviously).
The album starts with the haunting but hopeful "At Dawn" in which he asserts his ability to make it in the music industry despite the admonitions of everyone else, which adequately serves as a metaphor for anyone trying to rise above.
The album picks up on "Lowdown" which centers on the importance of his love for another, and that she doesn't need to worry because she never has to fight with him, she never has to bleed for him, and she's only gotta dance with him.
"The Way that He Sings" has been deemed the "quintessential MMJ song" by one, and this may be true simply because of MMJ's description of their favorite band within the song: "Why does my mind blow to bits every time they play that song? / It's just the way that he sings, / not the words that he says, or the band. / Im in love with this soul, it's a meaning that I understand." There's a point in this song, when Jim James croons "Why's it so great just to wake every day, alive and by your side." that I get really, really happy-every time! The song consists of a number of questions that focus on the injustices of war and the state of the world itself, love, and music--specifically wondering how these things affect us individually.
The next track, "Death Is My Sleezy Pay" is a slow, sad song about longing for someone, how time seems to slow down when you're apart, speed up when you're together, how someone can be so sweet to you you can't stand it, and how death is better than not having that someone.
"Hopefully" is my favorite track on this record. This song is meant to be listened to without distraction, preferably cranked up so you can hear the crickets in the background and allow Jim James's vocals in the chorus to pierce through to your soul. (Can you say cliché!?! haha.) But seriously, that's what it feels like. This song is about a couple who's fallen on hard times, but he knows how much he loves her and he's determined to make it right. It's by far the most emotional song on the album, and when James starts the chorus, you'll know. Everytime this song starts, with James whispering "I'm ready when you are" before the guitar starts, I get sucked in and feel it.
As much as Hopefully sounded like a song you have to listen to at night, I've listened to "Bermuda Highway" in my bed before I go to sleep more than any other song. It has a soothing poetic rhythm to it, telling two short stories about loneliness and concern about being "carved out" from her life, and about her abandoning her dreams. I can't figure out exactly who he's talking about at the end, when he says "Sometimes I wonder why that meek guy got all the fame, / maybe im to blame for his short bitter fucked up life."--whether it's himself, and he's referring to regrets about the man he's become, or someone else... (Actually, the whole song is rather hard to understand exactly--check out the lyrics and tell me if you're not confused by the fourth line) Either way, this song hits you; they do
such a good job of evoking the mood of the lyrics through their music--THAT is their musical genius I've been talking about.
"Honest Man" is one of the true rockers on the album, with twangy guitar solos and screams, which delivers a good change-of-pace from the previous slow songs. It wakes you up. James once again, as if out of the depths of sleep and/or depression, asserts that he's going to try his hardest to be an honest man and to "make it on this earth."
"Xmas Curtain" is wonderful! More upbeat, but not a rocker, actually infuses a bit of reggae in it with metal drums in the bridge, it serves as an interesting switch up. And its subject matter is so obscure that it carries with it somewhat of a carefree attitude, unlike much of the rest of the album. My guess is that the "lawbreakers who never break the law" are men stealing (and behaving badly with) women's hearts.
"Just Because I Do" may be an affirmation of independence, which centers on attempts to help her get better and be her normal self, so he can leave her and/or get over her.
"If It Smashes Down" consists of just Jim James and his banjo, thumping and plucking away, as he slowly recounts "lovely trips" with his lover. His voice echoes and fills wherever he was, and contributes to the feelings of solitude that this song evokes.
"I Needed It Most" is the fourth longest song on the record, and is another acoustic song soaked with reverb. It is perhaps the most poetic, and James utilizes the longest phrasing in the album (not many words, but each line takes a while) which is equally tempo'ed to give it all equal weight. He's looking back on his past, and reflecting on the state of his current relationship with the one he loves. He's telling her that despite their differences, and despite the really hard times that make them feel they'll crumble, all that matters in the end is that they're there for each other, that they've both got someone to hold when they need it most.
"Phone Went West" is a quest for answers, and for something to happen. The pragmatism of the lyrics, "Is there a doctor in the house tonight? / If there's a wrong, he could make it right." contrast with his longing to know what's going on in the uncertainty of his relationship ("Tell me I'm wrong, tell me I'm right. / Tell me there's nobody else in the world."). Not knowing whether or not he gets his answers, we see that he chooses to act, as he repeats "There will be a knock on your back door." at the end of the song. It seems that finally, after everything that's happened, he's chosen to just go see her.
Some people have said that "Strangulation" doesn't belong on this record because of its bits of heavy rock, but I argue that this song is the perfect end to this album. It starts off softly, with the words "strangulation / I don't wanna feel a thing," and covers the heaviest subjects on the album: although living in such despair and apathy that suicide seems to be the best option at times, James comes to the conclusion that despite it all, he believes that someone up there is looking out for us and helping us with the pain. This song serves as the perfect catharsis: sadness for our lost loved ones and our depressing lives, anger for how unfair things have seemed, and finally, knowing that we aren't alone, hope for the future.
Sample these MP3's from their site (right-click "save target as"):