The trajectory of My Morning Jacket from humble folkies with jam-band tendencies into a group with Super Bowl halftime potential may seem an unlikely career arc. From the band’s first album, 1999’s The Tennessee Fire, singer/guitarist Jim James has couched his ghostly, reverb-soaked falsetto in American Gothicism. The tunes were pretty and a tad creepy, but somewhat shapeless. At best, they pointed toward two intriguing Southern-rock variants: the hard-drinking, art-damaged ’90s drawl of Will Oldham and his Palace brethren and the hard-drinking, Dylan-damaged ’60s twang of the Band.
On Evil Urges, MMJ’s fifth studio album, they completely slip out of that bind, serving up outsize hooks that deliver on the promise of 2005’s Z, the polished teaser that signaled their intent to reach a wider audience.
The sophistication of the group’s music has grown, now showcasing the burn-it-down passion of James’ songcraft, which was obscured in the past by long-winded guitar heroism. Wiry, foot-stomping riff-rockers (“Remnants,” “Aluminum Park”) compress an album’s worth of catchy bits and raw power into eight-plus minutes. “I’m Amazed” and “Smokin From Shootin,” a pair of black-light Bic-flickers, get compact mixes that keep both tunes’ gospel-inflected melodies aloft while James and guitarist Carl Broemel run tautly intertwined scales, conjuring the sublime duels of Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.
But the question is, Will the Bonnaroovians who pushed the band to the cusp of mass acceptance still love them tomorrow? On merits, the answer should be an emphatic yes. Evil Urges is easily MMJ’s most accomplished and ambitious record, masterfully sifting through genres. The title track’s abrupt shift from Smokey Robinson soul to Houses of the Holy stomp is thrilling; the ’70s schlock-pop riff that powers “Thank You Too” — a string-laden ballad — is a deft, bell-bottomed flashback. The throbbing, bass-driven “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2” laces disco-period Kiss through Golden Earring’s golden age, and the goofy robo-metal of “Highly Suspicious” will sound terrific thumping out of a nearby car when you’re stuck in traffic en route to the beach.
But the tenderhearted moodiness that seduced early converts is here, too: Despite a “peace and glory” refrain, “Look at You” is the disc’s most mordant moment, a slow burner James sings with soul-stained regret. And set to a funereal cadence plucked out on a ramshackle acoustic guitar, “Librarian” offers these choice words of bitter wisdom: “Since we got the Interweb, these hardly get used.” “These” are books, but the same sentiment could apply to albums: In the digital age, who listens from beginning to end? Hook-happy and deeply felt, Evil Urges makes a compelling case that we should.
More on SPIN.com: More MMJ album reviews: It Still Moves, Okonokos May 2008: My Morning Jacket cover story Video: SXSW ’08 interview