At least to music critics, Radiohead’s Kid A is the Sgt. Pepper of the 21st century. Not that the two sound the same, but both represent huge artistic departures in the careers of their respective bands — so they’re now used interchangeably to denote the same phenomenon in the careers of other bands. Referencing Kid A in an album review is like sticking a stake in the center of a CD and declaring it ‘one small step for man, one giant step for mankind’; it’s a bold statement, but one that’s become surprisingly cavalier in the years since Kid A’s release. So either our CD stores are chock full of high art or our music critics enjoy cheapening the comparison.
In the case of My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges — which received the coveted Kid A connection in a recent issue of Rolling Stone — it’s nothing more than cheapening the comparison. Evil Urges is the sound of a band looking at its back catalogue, realizing nothing is broken and deciding to fix it anyway. It’s an unbearable dose of art pop in the place of pop art. And coming from a band on the cusp of something great, it’s really nothing special.
It’s quite a shame, then, that the album starts so strongly. As a title track, “Evil Urges” (‘urges’ is a noun) is MMJ at their genre-bending best: piña colada piano, Van Morrison guitars and a stuttering kickdrum coalesce for five minutes of Southern prog meltdown. Then, three minutes through, the jam band instincts kick in for sixteen bars of riffs you need a beard to play — which seems sweeter on repeat plays because it’s really the only bonafide jamming on this record. Frontman Jim James sings the whole thing in breathy falsetto, and like his stage name it’s a little gimmicky. But the song’s vintage touch proves that some of today’s best producing results in a sound quite unlike today’s.
Then comes “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 1,” the first in a two-part series of unnecessary but highly entertaining dance songs. The music itself (think Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips) is a slick, digital boogie; but when James delivers lines like “I can tell by the sounds you make/When you are pleased,” you wish he’d leave the sex songs to Justin Timberlake. The slower burner is “Touch Me Pt. 2,” what with its surf guitars, arcade keyboards and disco drums that seem to eminate from a haunted jukebox.
Highlights like those, however, are few and far between. Even first single “I’m Amazed” (see below) reveals itself as barroom karaoke underneath layers of catchiness, and it nicks a guitar lick from the Violet Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” on the way. Then there are extreme lowlights; how “Thank You Too!” and “Look At You” — both of which sound like Barry Manilow castaways — made it onto this record I’ll never know.
But none of the highs or those atone for a midsection dominated by mediocrity, something entirely unexpected from a relatively hit-or-miss band. Naming a song “Librarian,” for instance, doesn’t mandate you to sing it as if in a library. And leftfield experimenting like “Highly Suspicious” belongs on a rarities collection, not in the third spot on an album meant to cement your reputation. The track is nothing more than a showcase for Jim James’ Prince fetish, as it tames his talented band to a metronome. His lyrics on “Two Halves” and “Sec Walkin,” meanwhile, are either too vague or too simple for the predictable chug of the songs. (Even the gorgeous background vocals in “Sec,” bathed in ELO-style FM falsetto, would improve leagues if MMJ brought a little more coherence to the liner notes.)
James’ ego, in fact, might very well be the overstocked ingredient in the Evil Urges recipe. In the past, MMJ’s strongest moments have been their jam sections; on this set, the musicians are kept on tight leashes and Jim James’ voice is mutilated for instrumental purposes more than ever. You hear his maniacal laughs on “Highly Suspicious,” his spoken word breaks on “Touch Me Pt. 1,” and even his Steve Miller catcalls on “Evil Urges.” And then you hear guitar lines that seem drunk from modesty (“Sec Walkin”) or overly electronically-altered (“Smokin’ from Shootin'”), as if the extra power used to brighten the frontman’s spotlight has left the rest of the band in the dark.
Evil Urges surges at the album’s end, when “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants” rock back-to-back. But considering that MMJ is a band historically crippled by faulty album pacing, you’re not surprised that both tracks are too little, too late on an album overwhelmed with ghost-slow material. Even in the eighth minute of album closer “Touch Me Pt. 2,” as a repeated keyboard motif loses steam, it sounds like all five members of the band have left a robot to play the rest of their show. Then comes the album’s final sound — a five-second shriek of applause — and you’re shocked for two reasons: first because of the enhanced volume, second because the noise sounds distinctly human on an album too calculated for its own good. But then again, MMJ might have made a fatal flaw when they sought that Kid A comparison — forgetting that their band’s goal was to be like Radiohead, not sound like them.