January 19, 2009

I Lost My Morning Jacket

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The folks over at Gannett might not like my saying it, but addiction’s not always a bad thing. Sure, heroin eats your soul and meth eats your face, but there are subtler pleasures whose tight grip on your sense of self-discipline does neither harm nor detriment. Some people garden; others copulate; but there is only one non-narcotic pastime that can truly take hold of your body and spirit. I am speaking, of course, of music.
You all know the feeling — the irresistible urge to play that song just one more time, the uncontrollable humming in class, the sense of powerlessness before your iPod’s repeat function.
Back in middle school the addiction manifested itself in hours spent before a radio, waiting in agony for the moment when you could hit record and eternalize your jonesing on tape; now we have endless access to our tunes of choice, and there’s no stopping the pull.
The first addictions I had to music were to individual songs, random ditties like Pink Floyd’s “Time” or “Nothing Compares to You” by Sinead O’Connor. As time progressed, however, I felt myself drawn more to longer works and albums, until eventually, in my freshman year of college, I fell into a world-shuttering and euphoria-producing enchantment with a whole band — Louisville, Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket.
I had listened to MMJ for a couple of years already, and so I can’t explain why I was suddenly unable to last two hours without the hollow guitars of “Dondante” or the arching vocals of “Phone Went West” resonating in my ears. Images of the bandleader Jim James’ fuzzy beard and wild hair circled through my dreams at night; the names “Bo Koster,” “Patrick Hallahan” and “Two-Tone Tommy” echoed in my head like a mantra. MMJ’s all about twang and reverb, and I soon found myself clipping G’s like an Appalachian and singing to my peas at dinner. Nary a shower passed without a blow-by-blow recreation of Jim James’ solo on “One Big Holiday,” and I’m still not sure my brief enchantment with two-buck chuck and the opening lines of “Magheeta” (“Sittin’ here with you at night, all wrapped up and a bottle of wine…”) are unrelated.
In time, my habit slackened a bit and I was able to substitute an outside band for every two or three MMJ songs, but I was still in thrall to the boys when their latest release, Evil Urges, came out this past June. The record was easily the most anticipated of their career; after the relatively steady folk-rock of The Tennessee Fire, At Dawn and It Still Moves, their previous LP, Z, had ventured into electronic beats and drum machines, so the style of the next album was anyone’s guess. A few disappointing previews on the Rolling Stone website notwithstanding, I was pumped beyond measure.
Betrayal. There’s no lighter way to put it. Pure back-stabbery. Here I was, a wide-eyed, Jim James-crazed young’un, and they threw this schlock at me: butter-melting strings, AC/DC rip-offs, reverb-less poppy vocals. The title track sounds like a fourteen year-old singing karaoke. There’s a song about a sexy librarian. I mean, what? This was not the My Morning Jacket of yore.
Needless to say, there was a rough period of withdrawal. I couldn’t return to the sweet sounds of “The Bear” or “Dancefloors” without a tear coming to my eye, much the same way widows weep at the sight of their dead husband’s ties. It was just so inexplicable — MMJ selling out the Man, overproducing their raw beauty to sell a few records to ignorant little eighth-graders who never had to sit by a boombox and learn the real patience that good listening requires.
But on New Year’s Eve I swallowed my pride and hoofed it down to New York to catch MMJ at MSG, a kind of musical goodbye sex to the band that had nursed me through my 19th year. Being the recalcitrant, shamelessly penny-pinching, always-in-the-wrong-city-at-the-wrong-time live show attendee that I am, I had yet to see my boys playing live, which is their undisputed forte. Loaded on André and memories of heartbreak, I took my seat in the stadium of stadiums to see what these hucksters had left.
The show was, quite frankly, fantastic. For all the mainstream-ass-kissing they’ve been up to lately, MMJ can still rock harder than almost anybody around, and even the Evil Urges turdlets were imbued with a passion that I had theretofore failed to recognize. I won’t say I was shocked and awed, but my separation anxiety was alleviated somewhat by the real ization that the band still had a musical soul. Acceptance is the first step to recovery, after all.
As midnight struck and white balloons cascaded from the ceiling, old Jimmy took the mike and began serenading the crowd with the slow, bittersweet “Auld Lang Syne.” By the second verse the obviously inebriated James had forgotten the words and started spewing gibberish. A fitting finale, I thought: this was a metaphor for the depths to which MMJ had sunk. In time, perhaps the hangover will wear off, and I may yet again enjoy the pleasures of addiction.