For the better part of the past decade, My Morning Jacket has been poised as the next big thing in rock. Successes like their 2005 gem, Z, highlighted the band’s ability to appeal to both disciples of classic and indie rock, their distinctive sound imbued with a singular Southern flair that seemed to come naturally to these Kentucky natives. Even before the release of the band’s 2003 major-label debut, It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket had been on a blistering streak of success, garnering a slew of devotees and being hailed as one of the greatest live bands of the new millennium — a title even further cemented with the release of last year’s live double-disc, Okonokos. For those following the band’s steady ascent into the hailed pantheon of rock, Evil Urges may come as a bit of a disappointment.
Ditching the reverb-soaked, elliptically inclined tunes of yore for a more adult-contemporary, direct approach to songwriting, singer/guitarist Jim James seems to have made an album that caters more to personal preferences than the exploratory songwriting we have come to expect from the group. “Sec Walking” could easily be a Sweet Baby James-era James Taylor track, all the while offering very little lyrically with its banally sentimental refrain of “Brother, do you care?” And although a healthy departure in sound generally lends itself to the revitalization of a band, the departures found in Evil Urges feel more like intentional copycat throwbacks, sans the eyewinks and irony.
Furthering the maddeningly stale dose of “Haven’t we heard this before?” is “Highly Suspicious,” where James dons a grating falsetto against Robert Palmer-reminiscent guitars and a very ’80s all-male chant of the song’s title. This is something we’ve not previously heard from My Morning Jacket for sure, but it’s a peculiarly dated-sounding direction for a band who has penned such singular, timeless songs as “It Beats for You,” “Steam Engine,” and “Dondante.”
Unfortunately, much of the bulk of the album consists of mid-tempo, slickly produced songs that too often veer into easy-listening territory. “Thank You, Too” and “Look at You” not only fail to engage but, worse yet, begin to sound too saccharine for their own good after repeated listens. And although the much-needed blast of “Aluminum Park” and momentous riffs of “Remnants” provide a fire to Evil Urges otherwise not found, it feels too little, too late.
But at the same time, tracks like “I’m Amazed” and “Librarian” rank among the band’s best, and “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants” and maybe even “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 1” will be welcome additions to future live gigs. And it is difficult not to appreciate James’s earnest effort in not only using the recording studio as a tool to better his music but also for taking risks with Evil Urges. Ultimately, though, this is a definite misfire in an otherwise impeccable career.