An awful lot of people are very excited about the arrival of Evil Urges, the fifth proper full-length from Louisville, Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket, a band that cut its teeth with a number of independent releases back in the late 90s, before earning critical acclaim from the right mix of blogs and mainstream rags and jumping to ATO Records, a subsidiary of Capitol. They’ve managed to strike a delicate balance over the years, appealing to an ever-widening audience while maintaining the lion’s share of the fans that were with them since the beginning — no small feat, considering recent failures by everyone from Modest Mouse to Rilo Kiley.
At the beginning of Evil Urges, it starts to seem as though My Morning Jacket is headed down a similar path, ditching the reverb-soaked country-rock that endeared them to so many people. The record starts out with the title-track, a five-minute-long experiment in soft, somewhat embarrassing funk, with Jim James singing in a falsetto that sounds forced, like something you’d expect Jack Black to do in a bad movie. It sounds half reverent and half mocking and completely annoying. Curiously, about three minutes in, there’s a lengthy instrumental break during which they sound suspiciously like Rush, all squiggly guitar patterns and sneaky, fast-moving bass noodling. The prog thing, as carried out here, suits them surprisingly well. Other iterations of it throughout the record fare far worse. All in all, an inauspicious beginning.
Things get slightly better with ‘Touch Me I’m Going to Scream’, an airy, keyboard-heavy track featuring a decent enough melody, with drums and bass so weird and twitchy, one wonders if it was written specifically so that listeners could dance the Robot to it. There’s more proggy stuff happening, with the constantly swelling, and swirling, keyboards, and again, it creates the sense that they’re actually just kidding around — a sense that intensifies to the point of absolute infuriation by the next song.
If there is a saving grace to ‘Highly Suspicious’, it’s that it’s the record’s shortest song at just over three minutes, which is still somewhere around three minutes too long. It starts with some dopey funk keyboard part, and James does the falsetto thing again, singing a bunch of crap I can’t understand, plus the phrase “peanut butter pudding surprise” a bunch of times, which, sadly, I think I understand perfectly. Then, exactly 24 seconds into the song, a chorus of either people with bad, bad taste who are willing to humiliate themselves, or robots programmed by said people, chants, “HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS!” And immediately you start to wonder what fucked up turn of events went down for you, an otherwise reasonable person, to have wound up listening to a band that could ever possibly think this is ok, even for a minute.
But then, with the fourth track, ‘I’m Amazed’, something weird happens. Evil Urges essentially just goes and turns into a regular old My Morning Jacket record, and since there are 14 songs total, it’s actually pretty easy to forget that those first three even exist. You wind up with just under 40 minutes of exactly the kind of feel-good, roots-based rock songs they do so well. ‘I’m Amazed’ sounds like America (the band) in the best way possible, and there’s a wonderful mixture of breezy, 70s radio hits like ‘Sec Walkin’’ and ‘Look at You’ and crunchier, countrified rockers like ‘Aluminum Park’ and ‘Remnants’, both of which showcase the band’s technical proficiency without falling prey to irritating wankiness.
This is not the first time My Morning Jacket has pulled something like this, either, which is odd. On their last full-length, Z, they loaded the first half with a number of tracks that seemed out of place, offering this wonderfully refreshing take on reggae and dub, with moments of soul-influenced R&B popping up here and there as well. It was startling, obviously, but by the middle of the record, it was very much back to business as usual. The difference between these two records, though, is that those first few songs on Z stand as some of the best work the band’s ever done, to the point where it was frustrating that they didn’t keep it up for longer. With Evil Urges, it’s exactly the opposite.