It's both rare and marvelous to hear a good band make its first really great album. This hasn't been an era for disciplined, focused LPs, which makes listening to My Morning Jacket's Z—with its 10 fantastic tracks packed tightly into 47 minutes—so bracing that it's hard to trust. Maybe Z is all surface, and will tear easily with repeated use. And isn't it kind of choppy? My Morning Jacket usually follows a smoothed-out boom-and-twang sound, but Z is all over the map stylistically, and the songs don't fit together too neatly. Or maybe they do. Better play it again. It's not hard.
Z begins humbly, with "Wordless Chorus," a sweet nothing of a song built around a skittering beat, a sexy coo, and an angelic choir. It sounds like foreplay and afterglow all at once. The next song, "It Beats For You," weaves together Pink Floyd, Red House Painters, Will Oldham, David Crosby, and Radiohead into one meandering, quasi-mystical declaration of love, and the album holds onto that rope the rest of the way, adding new strands without pulling out the old ones. Z is sturdy enough to hold the sloppy, scream-along alt-rock of "What A Wonderful Man," the calliope turns of "Into The Woods," the pulsating power-pop of "Anytime," the elided southern stomp of "Lay Low" (which builds to a dual guitar jam that The Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd would be happy to claim), and the delicate piano balladry of "Knot Comes Loose," enriched by slide guitar and the high-lonesome moan of singer-songwriter Jim James.
The record is undeniably the work of My Morning Jacket—all grandeur and pounding heart—but Z's take-a-shot spirit is bound up in the nutty, insanely catchy "Off The Record," which stacks up a stolen surf riff, a reggae rhythm, lurching vocals, and an extended, spacey coda. At first it sounds too wild and beastly to be any good, but the hook is as infectious as freedom, and around the third time through the song, doubts dissolve. If it takes some time to adjust to, it's only because it's hard to recognize a classic right away.