The Lowdown: In our diseased and never-ending present, 2015 feels like a hell of a lot longer ago than just five years. That April, My Morning Jacket released The Waterfall, a record that our Sheldon Pearce praised for its “stunning sonic scenery” and “perceptive, generation-bending kind of songwriting about lost love and nostalgia.” In addition to producing their best-received record since 2005’s breakthrough, Z, the sessions at Panoramic House in Stinson, CA, also produced a second album’s worth of material that Jim James and company decided to save until they needed them most. At the time, James told critic Steven Hyden in an interview for Grantland that “the two records aren’t related or anything” and that he “[didn’t] want to put it out as, like, The Waterfall 2 or anything like that.” That proverbial rainy day is now here, and so is The Waterfall II, a collection of songs that somehow manage to feel like a long-buried time capsule and a timely prescription for some introspective self-care.
The Good: Although James didn’t feel the connection between the material on The Waterfall and The Waterfall II at first, listeners will. This is a moody record, one whose bruised and dreamy soul-searching serves as the duskier bookend to its predecessor’s sun-dappled roaming. “Spinning My Wheels” acts as the record’s unexpected scene-setter; instead of a rousing, festival-ready sing-along like “Believe (Nobody Knows)”, The Waterfall II opens on a sparely arranged meditation, one whose solitary keys and languid harmonies entwine themselves around James’ yearning call for forward motion. Sequenced differently, it’s the kind of song that might get lost in the middle of a tracklist; given the spotlight, it instead becomes a tired, gentle anthem for our quarantined summer.
Although they were written about the dissolution of a romantic relationship and recorded half a decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, the best moments on The Waterfall II give sonic life to the same kinds of longing felt during these months of isolation. “All I want to do is feel you” goes the chorus of “Feel You”, a piano ballad augmented by spiraling guitar licks that heighten the craving for connections you can’t have. Elsewhere, over the brushed drums and sunset-ready lead of “The First Time”, James reconciles the value of learning lessons with the nagging desire for that old sense of discovery. “Ooh I wonder where the time went?” he asks, with no clear answer. These contemplative songs are made even more powerful by the record’s well-deployed moments of energy. “Climbing the Ladder” hits like a treble-y Bakersfield stomper made even more dynamic by an unexpected tempo change, and “Beautiful Love (Wasn’t Enough)” rides the same wounded bounce that animated Harry Nilsson’s best ’70s work.
The Bad: The same slow-moving thoughtfulness that powers the best moments of The Waterfall II also hamstrings its potential throughout the record’s second half. By then, it becomes apparent that the climax-free restraint shown on earlier tracks wasn’t actually building towards any hoped-for crescendo. “Magic Bullet” introduces some beguiling ideas (glammy whispers, bubbling synth blips, a beefy brass section) that stay restrained and underexplored throughout, while “Run It” limps along like a paint-by-numbers version of a classic My Morning Jacket song. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity comes on the personnel side; Brittany Howard is credited as a backing vocalist here (just as she was on The Waterfall), but isn’t given a part commensurate with her talent. Given the record’s duet-friendly subject matter, that omission is the kind of what-could’ve-been that the band should take pains to avoid going forward.
The Verdict: Despite its sequel-style title, The Waterfall II stands as an equal to its well-loved predecessor, one that moves from the sunny banks at the top of the falls to the deep and bracing waters down below. The torch songs here resist the urge to wallow, counterbalancing their regrets with mature calls for personal growth. The result is a slice of summer escapism with some weight to it and a worthy companion during isolation in all its forms.
Essential Tracks: “Spinning My Wheels”, “Climbing the Ladder”, and “Feel You”
Pick up the album here.