Song Sung Blue

My Morning Jacket's At Dawn sounds like a country of sadness

The day a copy of My Morning Jacket's second release, At Dawn (Darla), arrived in my mailbox, I discovered a nest of wee birdies a-twittering in the treetop outside my house. Awww! Yet after a week of traumatic times (and the truth is that I had a string of worst-case scenarios: long-term-relationship breakup, family illness, missed episode of Dawson's Creek, etc.), I was in the mood to kick Persephone and her budding wildflowers back down into the underworld.

Luckily, those Kentucky brooders in My Morning Jacket share my seasonal disorder. During an initial listen to their saturnine album, I suddenly had a slight hankering to throw the neighborhood cat up into the tree so that I could agonize over watching it smack some feathers around, claw out the birdies' beady little eyes, and chomp their tiny noggins. After two successive listens, I wanted to grab the frail, bespectacled first grader who was walking past my window, throw an arm around his shoulder and a shot of a whiskey down his gullet, and force him to weep drunkenly with me about our bygone days of misspent youth. And after five consecutive listens I decided Enough suffering! It was high time that I dressed my wounds. Using a rusty chainsaw. And a bucket of rock salt as ointment.

Call me a masochist, but there are many albums that trigger an urge to inflict painful lesions upon my person. For example, Aerosmith's latest release causes me to cry. But that's only because hearing their millionth take on moronic, aging-rocker nostalgia has me mimicking Steven Tyler's receding hairline by ripping out every one of my tresses with a tear-duct-agitating pair of tweezers. But that's a different kind of pain. My Morning Jacket's country dirges just make me miss the comfort of being sad.

But when you get all blubbery along with me, my bipolar friend, don't say you weren't warned. From the moment that the title track, "At Dawn," begins with a gloomy rumble that builds into a slow, shuffling drumbeat, you know you're in for Ken Loach-grade despair. But it isn't until nearly two minutes after the crescendo when Jim James cuts in with the nasally yowl of a young Neil Young that you start feeling like an oven-bound Sylvia Plath on the dark night of the soul before her last bake sale. This is not just because the first lines James sings are about being hauled out into the street and having hooligans burn all of your stuff in empty trashcans. Or because the man plunking out keyboard lamentations in the background is Danny Cash, a distant relative of the Man in Black.

The real sorrow comes from the far-off, muffled recording, one that is so rife with regret that I can just imagine West Virginians using it to discipline their children: "Now go upstairs to your room, little Billie Sue, and listen to At Dawn until you're sorry for what you've done!" (In fact, the depth of the vocals in the mix may have you thinking Jim James sang them into a microphone located a few hundred miles away in West Virginia.)

The young bad seed, however, would probably happily lock herself in her room and listen to the sweet sound of repenting. "Hopefully" is the most haunting misnomer on the album, blissfully stuck as it is upon a repetitive keyboard figure and the most delicately somber guitar chords. "Death Is My Sleazy Pony," has James whining, "Alcohol will only make you tired" over somnolent harmonicas. For extra nihilistic fun, the album even comes with a second CD of My Morning Jacket demos, which offer the minimalist pleasure of James strangling himself with an acoustic guitar.

Regrettably, a few upbeat songs almost completely destroy the rest of the album's mood. "Just Because I Do" and "The Way That He Sings," boast rollicking guitars and happy harmonies. The result here is a bluesy barroom ruckus that could have been started by the bastard child of Creedence Clearwater Revival. O Death, that you might program our CD players to play only the most torrid eulogies!

Perhaps the Grim Reaper is sticking all of his skeletal little fingers on the stereo buttons in the Netherlands, where those poor MMJ lovers get no winter sun and drool over Rutger Hauer movies just to keep their endorphin levels in check. The Dutch buy more MMJ CDs than anyone else, and the Dutch television program Lola da Musica recently featured a documentary about the band, most of which had those ol' whiners insisting that they were dyed-in-indigo country rockers and not Slint-era indie poseurs.

This seems to be a popular claim for MMJ and their entourage: In a recent issue of Magnet, they complained that they took inevitable comparisons to the bonniest Prince Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) as "an insult." When asked by online site Pitchfork Media about the band's indie-rock appeal, a representative from the group's Darla label stated, "There ain't nothin' trendy about them. They're the real deal." So let's get this straight: MMJ uses the distant-vocals aesthetic of Galaxy 500, Palace's equine fascination, and even a bit of Uncle Tupelo's nasal twang, and they're not alt-anything?

Which raises the issue that too many Southern "working-class country bands" talk down the influence of other musical genres lest the group's "legitimacy" be diluted by its middle-class appeal. Depression isn't necessarily any less serious if it afflicts an alcoholic middle-class office drone than if it strikes a minimum-wage worker trading on the sweat of his brow. If we learned nothing else from Pearl Jam and "Jeremy," we gathered that when indie rockers forget to take their Wellbutrin, they can be just as menacingly sad as country-singer wallowers.

James, above all, should know all of this: Before releasing albums with MMJ, he worked not in a black-lung-ridden coal mine, but delivering sandwiches to yuppies in Louisville. And after At Dawn reaches the Netherlands, he will probably be walking around in golden clogs commissioned by music mogul Flugen Flogen--though this may not make him any happier.

In other words, it makes no difference whether you're the kind who likes her Johnny Cash straight with no chaser or the kind who also sheds tears during emo concerts and long-distance-service commercials. Either way, you'll probably find that At Dawn is one of the most weepy alt-country albums in recent times. Whatever you do, just don't call it "no depression."

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