On the surface, My Morning Jacket is an unlikely band to see selling out venues or headlining major music festivals. The Louisville-based rockers have never received significant radio airplay, building their community on the dual strength of their expansive, almost jam band, setlists and on the strength of frontman Jim James' lyrics. Whether writing about love, loss or life on the road, My Morning Jacket has a particular gift for slicing through the clutter to the heart of the matter with just a few well-placed lines. No group of My Morning Jacket fans will ever agree on a definitive set of “best” lyrics for the band, but these five songs represent a good cross-section of lyrical content to stand out.
My Morning Jacket's second album, At Dawn, found the band experimenting with longer songs and different sounds that would eventually define their signature psychedelic Southern jam rock. It also brought one of the best examples of a regular vein of material for Jim James, self-doubt.
“Sometimes I wonder
why that meek guy got all the fame.
Maybe I'm to blame,
for his short, bitter, f*cked up life.”
4. Steam Engine
One of Jim James' most starkly realized love songs, “Steam Engine,” from the band's breakout 2003 album It Still Moves, is an exploration of love beyond the physical. While lines like “your skin looks good in moonlight and goddamn these shaky knees” show that sexual attraction still exists, at its best “Steam Engine” is about the intangibles, the spiritual moments with a lover that keeps you coming home.
“It's not the dream that makes you weak.
It's not the night that makes you sleep.
But it's a voice and it's a choice,
to call you out or stay at home.”
One of the standout tracks from My Morning Jacket's 1999 debut album Tennessee Fire, “The Bear” was the first great example of Jim James' dual meaning lyrics. On its surface, “The Bear” is a straight forward warning about hanging out with the wrong people. But lyrics like “time is near to come forward with whatever killed your spark” hints at deeper meanings, a warning to overcome a dark past or a dark period in your life that threatens to kill your creativity.
“It's a bad idea,
to go down to the park by yourself after dark.
'Cause they're down on their luck
and they've lost touch with their bleeding hearts.”
Fans had long known that “Dodante,” from 2005's Z was pretty obviously a song about coping with loss. But Jim James elaborated during an appearance on VH-1's Storytellers program that the song was dedicated to a lifelong friend and former bandmate who committed suicide. The entire song is a devastatingly naked trip through loss, survivor's guilt and attempts to honor the memory of someone gone.
“To the one I now know most,
I will tell them of your ghost.
Like a thing that never, ever was.”
The fourth single from It Still Moves is a fan favorite anytime it pops up on My Morning Jacket's ever-changing setlist. While the road has always been a popular inspiration for songwriters, few have captured the competing lure of the cheering crowds and the loved ones back home. If any non-musician wonders why someone would ever submit themselves to months on the road, Jim James' explanation of “nothing could ever chill me, like the way it makes the time just disappear” is a good reminder. But the true genius of “Golden” comes in its second half, where James captures perfectly the supportive family at home, who endure the weeks of loss so he can live his dream.
“You always told me,
no matter how long it holds me.
If it falls apart or makes us millionaires.
Be right here forever,
go through this thing together.
And on Heaven's golden shore,
we'll lay our heads.”