There is something so enticing about “lost” material, when great bands have unreleased songs or albums that go years before being heard by the public. Such recordings have become legendary deep cuts for fans but also lead to major disappointments because the actual music doesn’t match the potential of what might have been.
My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II, an album of recordings made during 2013-2014 sessions for The Waterfall, is certainly not the fabled Lost Ark of the Covenant, but it is a pretty damn good rock LP. With frontman Jim James making strong vocal statements backed by intricate musicianship and top-notch production, it is certainly a welcome continuation to the band’s discography.
Solid from top-to-bottom, The Waterfall II contains 10 songs clocking in at 46 minutes. An LP in the classic sense, there are more than a few hard-rocking tracks that should get peoples’ attention. Typically, if a band releases music years after it was recorded, it doesn’t sound this good. From the ethereal harmonies on “Spinning My Wheels” to the breezy groove of “The First Time,” fans of the band should be more than satisfied. Nine months into a new decade, it isn’t a stretch to say it is one of the first great albums of the 2020s — or does this belong more to the 2010s?
The original 2015 Waterfall flows in a beautiful and eclectic manner, reading like a concept album. It feels open-ended, deceptively morose in lyrical content, yet optimistic in musicality, touching on the internal conflict of songwriter Jim James’ personal life. Five years later, The Waterfall II is more visceral and less cerebral; it may be less cohesive as a whole than its predecessor, though it provides more concrete storytelling to latch onto within individual songs. What also sets the two albums apart is that Waterfall II has a more organic vibe, with less dramatic prog synths and more garage rock guitar jams.
In the years between The Waterfall II and its predecessor, most rock fans can probably agree that the pandemic, government dysfunction, and social unrest have turned the world upside-down. During those years, Jim James released six albums as a solo artist — four LPs of original music and two LPs of cover songs — in addition to teaming up with HeadCount for “The Future is Voting Tour” to promote voter participation in swing states ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
With all that in mind, The Waterfall II’s lyrics ring especially true in this era of social distancing and limited travel for non-essential work. On the opening song, “Spinning My Wheels,” Jim James sings:
Hypnotized from endless traveling
Hypnotized from doing the same old thing
Well, it don't matter where you settle down
And it sure don't matter where they put you in the ground
The only point of thinking is to break the spell
To love another day and live to tell
Done spinning my wheels
Done spinning my wheels
Timeless lyrics like these, written years ago, capture the feeling of 2020 not just for James and MMJ, but for the entire music community who are learning to live in totally different ways without concerts and traveling.
The album’s social consciousness doesn’t end there. “Magic Bullet,” provides potent commentary about the epidemic of gun violence we still face. James flips the rock lyric, “Come on,” to a desperate plea for society to reach a solution. The song was released as a stand-alone single in 2016, weeks after the Orlando Pulse Nightclub Shooting that killed 49 people, and happened within a week of separate shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge that killed 11 police officers. Sadly, in the years since the song was released, gun violence has continued to rise in the USA and a solution seems nowhere in sight.
James’ dark lyricism is also front-and-center on one the album’s most radio-friendly tracks, “Feel You,” a mellow slow jam with silky guitar licks that includes unexpected lines like, “Are we under covers raining blood?” Other songs touching upon the darker natures of life are “Beautiful Love (Wasn’t Enough)” and the hard rock gem “Wasted.”
Balancing the darkness are upbeat standouts like the Beach-Boys-meets-Pink Floyd floater “Still Thinkin’,” the jamband tour de force “Climbing the Ladder” that expertly careens from Country Rock to Ska to Disco to Psychedelic in just three minutes, and the warm blankets of folk rock on the closing two songs, “Welcome Home” and “The First Time.”
The fruitful Waterfall sessions were recorded with producer Tucker Martine in a hillside mansion in Stinson Beach, California. There was enough material for a double or triple album, but the band decided to release a single LP and a deluxe version with a few bonus tracks in 2015, with plans to release another album in 2016, according to Rolling Stone. For fans of MMJ, intrigue slowly turned into mystery about what happened. The rumor of MMJ’s next album had come and gone with little fanfare. Five years later, The Waterfall II has become a pleasant surprise, like money you found under the couch cushion.
In the annals of rock history, the famous “lost albums” have ranged from great classics like Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes (mostly recorded in the ‘60s, released in ‘75) to unbelievably overhyped duds like Guns ‘N Roses’ Chinese Democracy, which was worked on in the studio for over 10 years before finally being released in 2007. More recently, Tool’s Fear Inoculum lived up to the hype after 13 years of anticipation.
So, why release The Waterfall II now? James recently told Rolling Stone that early in the quarantine he was taking a walk and one of the previously unreleased tracks came up on shuffle. Hearing it inspired the revival of the entire album. We’d list that song, “Spinning My Wheels,” along with “Still Thinkin’,” “Climbing The Ladder,” “Feel You,” “Magic Bullet,” “Wasted,” “Welcome Home,” and “The First Time,” as our favorites from the LP.
To paraphrase the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “You can’t step in the same water twice. It is constantly moving, and you yourself have changed.” The same is true of creating and experiencing music. As artists and fans have evolved over these years in a world that seems to have multiple seismic shifts every week — caused by the disastrous actions of Donald Trump and the GOP leading up to the worldwide mess we are currently trying to climb out of — we hear things in new ways, interacting with the music differently.
In the midst of COVID-19 disrupting society around the world, it’s important to find the silver linings in such a devastating time. Stuck in a pandemic that may last until the end of 2021 and a new normal that may be here until beyond 2024, we can all find solace in the fact that despite the many things that we have lost from our lives, music is one thing that provides us with love and happiness — asking for little in return. Greatness may seem elusive. Nevertheless, it’s there if you know how to find and appreciate it.