My Morning Jacket have a lot to offer as a studio band, but no single recording of theirs is worth much when held up to their Scott Pilgrim-esque live show. I had always been on the fence about the group until I saw them on a 95-degree afternoon at Bonnaroo and, ten minutes into the set, Manchester, TN, got its annual allotment of rain over the span of about 30 minutes. It was an appropriately epic set of circumstances for a set that relied heavily on It Still Moves-era bangers, and would’ve convinced anybody that these dudes were untouchable (though, to be fair, the resulting muddy conditions made every ensuing set seem nearly unbearable, helping MMJ by comparison; I’m sure that’s what kept me from getting into Steve Winwood).
I bring this up because this week, the Kentucky five-piece is playing a string of nearly sold-out shows at New York's Terminal 5, where they’ll play one of their albums in its entirety at each show, plus a selection of additional assorted hits, all for charity. At first glance, this fits comfortably into a trend started by the ATP-curated Don’t Look Back series, where bands are invited to recreate classic albums in their entirety for an audience. Artists from all strata of pop music have gotten in on the act, even going so far as to schedule whole tours around a single album, like the Pixies recent Doolittle anniversary shows or Weezer’s upcoming, imaginatively titled Blinkerton tour.
It doesn’t fit perfectly, though. There are certain connections between a number of the acts taking part in these types of shows that My Morning Jacket doesn’t share. For example, most of the bands usually focus on one album that has an element of consensus to their album choice (Suicide! Daydream Nation! Raw Power!); the album has been fixed into the firmament of great music already and this is just a victory lap.
Other artists are established enough that they can choose a few highly regarded albums to cycle through: Springsteen had the luxury of selling out shows where he’d play one of five classics all the way through during each performance. Or, to reuse an earlier example, Weezer will be ignoring much of their last decade of work on their upcoming tour in favor of focusing on their self-titled debut and Pinkerton.
Contrast this with the guys in MMJ. Their first three albums are uniformly great and each one has its sizable share of advocates as the band’s masterpiece; Z is a frequently exhilarating expansion of their powers with the odd clunker here and there (personal favorite, as it was in heavy rotation during a semester spent abroad; few bands can make you homesick for an imagined USA like My Morning Jacket). Evil Urges, while occasionally veering too far into Beck's Midnite Vultures territory, isn’t the confounding misstep that initial reports may have made it out to be. That said, none of them is the conventional wisdom choice for the band’s definitive contribution to the art form.
As for the Weezers and E Street Bands of the world, the zeroing in on a small handful of albums has the added import of assigning an unspoken inessentiality to the rest of their catalogs. There’s a reason nobody’s paying for a Tunnel of Love or Raditude tour. At least not yet. MMJ, on the other hand, are giving equal billing to every piece of their oeuvre (and wisely so, apparently, since the Evil Urges show sold out while At Dawn and The Tennessee Fire both had some tickets left on sale come show day), treating each album like a touchstone that folks have been waiting to revisit.
Maybe the strangest part of it all is that they’re still a going concern and a relatively young band. They’re not reunited after an acrimonious split from years ago, nor are they road warriors implicitly conceding to longtime fans that their most relevant work is behind them. All of their albums were released within the last eleven years, with maybe the last two still too recent for a proper critical reassessment. Maybe this is an attempt at self-canonization, or maybe it’s meant as a summation of decade-plus of service and as a memorial to the end of an era (and yeah, maybe it’s just a nice thing to do for charity, but this column would be shot to shit if that were the case, so no dice).
Ultimately, I like to think that it’s an act of cockiness, or, rather, gamesmanship. One of the best working rock bands in the world is so confident in their live show, they’re certain they can convince you that every song they’ve ever recorded deserves to be considered as a legitimate classic. It’s a testament to their might that just the idea of them doing this, let alone actually attending the shows, will likely be enough to spur some people on to giving each album another shot, assuming they even need them. These guys could play Raditude live and it’d be a fantastic show.