Pitchfork rating: 8.3
My rating: 7.9
Despite having spent my formative years in Kentucky, I never made an honest-to-God attempt to get into My Morning Jacket. It wasn’t a matter of taste, as I was a fan of plenty of bands who had undoubtedly taken cues from Jim James and company. It just wasn’t a priority for me and after leaving Kentucky, My Morning Jacket has mostly eluded my consciousness, until now.
It Still Moves is the band’s third album and an apparent catalyst for wider attention paid towards the band. It didn’t catapult them to overnight stardom, but subsequent releases saw significant gains in terms of Billboard chart positions. While I can’t speak for the rest of My Morning Jacket’s discography (which I understand branches into more psychedelic territory), I can say that It Still Moves succeeds through its focus: it doesn’t sound like the work of people trying to shortcut their way to the top of the charts.
Perhaps the biggest surprise listening to It Still Moves was how spacious it feels. I was expecting a country/southern rock album, and I more or less got one. However, It Still Moves distinguishes itself through its production, done by James, who has a tremendous ear for finding the clarity of each instrument and creating a listening environment that transports you to a barn renovated for revue performances. The twangy guitars and spritely piano and horns on “Dancefloors” are so energetic, they undercut the grimness of James’ proclamation that “For the past, I’m digging a grave so big it will swallow up the sea.” Remarkably, the song becomes more beautiful the busier it becomes.
Such momentum is kept up by showstoppers such as “One Big Holiday,” where James sings of false promises of musical fortune, and “Easy Morning Rebel” with vocals sounding like they’re soundtracking a hayride. It’s greatly apparent how influential James’ vocals have been on the indie rock landscape. On “Masterplan,” he sounds like the vocal prototype for both Josh Tillman and Chad VanGaalen. James is able to find a remarkable amount of range in this styling, seamlessly shifting from conversational to being thrown into an otherworldly realm, depending on where the band is leading him.
The spaciousness of It Still Moves doesn’t merely conjure high ceilings or unspoiled countryside. A sizable portion of the album feels heavenly, in ways subtle and immersive. The reverb on “Golden” gives redemptive power to a lonely bar number. On the nine-minute “I Will Sing You Songs,” the first third demonstrates the tense power of post-rock through build-up, while the rest gives us the payoff and the aftermath without feeling like any part was in desperate need of reduction. Noticing this quality made me appreciate the album more with further listens, particularly on opener, “Mahgeeta.” What seemed at first glance like a decent song about a trite topic (singing about your instrument, how profound), had gained new life as something of a modern devotional. Even if it’s not the seemingly-holiness of songs, James’ vocals appear to soar towards the ether before they come back down to Earth.
On the penultimate track “Steam Engine,” James confides, “I do believe none of this is physical,” a sentiment he repeats before asserting “To anyone who wondered/What old Jesus meant to me/Take him out to go diving/In Red Patoka Sea.” It’s here that the album finds the exact point of intersection between rootsy and holy in a beautifully unassuming interaction. It Still Moves finds power in leaving much unsaid. Lyrics are sparse and unspecific and songs avoid detours despite sizable lengths. Yet at no point does it feel like it’s running out of things to say.