Having spent its first decade building a loyal following straddling patchouli-scented jam-band fans and Pitchfork-quoting indie-hipsters—an Allman Brothers for the alt-country crowd, or space-rock Wilco fronted by a reedier-voiced Lenny—the Louisville, Ky. quintet My Morning Jacket began to walk the experimental/art-rock tightrope on its last album “Z” (2005), and it was rewarded with its biggest commercial success. Underscoring his desire not to be typecast as, you know, a mix of jam band fan and indie-rock hipster, bandleader Jim James told the New York Times, “I don’t want people to think anything when they hear ‘My Morning Jacket.’ I just want them to think of a question mark.”
Well, a question mark lingers over the group’s fifth studio release, alright, but it isn’t the one James was hoping for. Instead, the query is how the heck the group could have expected to pass off such a sprawling, chaotic and ultimately unsatisfying mess as inspired experimentation or stylistic diversity.
Working with producer Joe Chiccarelli (the White Stripes, the Shins), it’s as if the band was being steered by a GPS set to lead it into the most troublesome terrain imaginable, veering away from the reliable routes of alt-country, folk-rock and dramatic guitar jams, man, in favor of funk grooves, electronic ambient bleeps and blatant, embarrassing Prince tributes. While there are a few echoes of earlier triumphs, notably in the rousing “I’m Amazed,” serious missteps such as the title track, the “Midnight at the Oasis” ’70s AM radio tribute “Thank You Too!” and the unbelievably, unbearably annoying “Highly Suspicious” are so dire, the overall disc never recovers.
The themes of acting impulsively and bravely leaping into the void permeate the proceedings. “If you touch me, well I just think I’ll scream/’Cause it’s been so long, since someone challenged me/And made me think about the way things are/Made me think about the way they could be,” James trills in “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2.” But sometimes when you leap, you fall, and there is no inherent nobility in experimentation if all the results just fail.