In 1988, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan formed The Travelling Wilburys, a popular but unremarkable super-group with no cultural legacy to speak of. Likewise, Monsters of Folk—a super-group comprised of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, and M. Ward—are stacked with talent, but even after several years of live collaboration and half a year’s worth of hype, their self-titled debut lacks coherence and originality.
“Monsters of Folk” oscillates between Oberst’s tired country tropes and James’ burnt-out classic rock riffs. The numbers that feature M. Ward’s vocals provide consistently solid songwriting, offering several truly fantastic tracks on an album that, on the whole, feels slap-dash, poorly executed, and only mildly enjoyable.
On tracks like “Say Please” and “Losin’ Yo’ Head,” MoF tries their hand at classic rock. “Say Please” features a simple beat and several haphazard attempts at hair-pin transitions and rhythmic shifts that leave the song spun-out and wrecked behind them. The song is also hindered by its even-handed verse distribution; the transitions between singers make the song feel incoherent and contrived. The more-focused “Losin’ Yo’ Head”—with James taking lead vocals throughout—is catchier, but still comes across as uninteresting classic rock emulation.
Oberst takes lead vocals on irritating country tracks that sound like pre-pubescent Johnny Cash imitations. On “Man Named Truth,” easily the album’s worst track, Oberst attempts to weave a forced narrative—something about heroin and Aztec gold—over a clichéd, country backing track that sounds like something from a bad karaoke machine.
Between these two, unfortunate extremes—uninspired classic rock and trite country—lies the heart of the album. Oberst redeems himself with “Ahead of the Curve,” a powerful number built around a memorable acoustic guitar riff that tastefully expands into a full-band number. A more restrained Oberst recalls his best work as Bright Eyes, filling the song with beautiful, rapidly successive lines like “staying above the flat-line / I’m ahead of the curve / take a piece of the sunshine with me on an all-night drive to another world” and the poignantly direct opening line: “Another perfect day / They keep piling up / I got happiness that I can’t maintain / so beginner’s luck.”
The most successful contributor of the three vocalists, however, is unquestionably M. Ward. “The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me” is the best track on the album and serves as a melancholic insight into what could have been if MoF had produced a more carefully constructed album. The song breathes through the speakers at first, picked up by M. Ward’s croon, imbued with phonographic warmth and evocative lyrics: “The Sandman’s waiting to deliver me my dream / Guess I’ll lay my head against the elbow and the window / and watch the wheels go.” Then it builds, swept away by M. Ward’s chugging, steam-engine strum and Oberst’s tense splashes of lap steel that lead it into a blazing release. When Jim James’ rich harmonies fan across the track, it’s likes seeing “The Wizard of Oz” go from black-and-white to flaming Technicolor for the first time.
At the end of “Losin’ Yo’ Head,” there’s a brief studio dialogue between the Monsters. Someone says “That’s pretty cool,” and the others mutter their bemused agreement. Ultimately, that attitude of “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” leads to some generally good but poorly executed ideas that pale significantly in contrast to the album’s several standout tracks. The true gems here are the few songs like “Slow Down Jo” and “The Brakeman, the Sandman and Me” where these formidable indie-folkers combine forces to create nuanced, coherent songs.
Ultimately, the fundamental issue with this album is what plagues all super-groups: an effort to evenly distribute the work between several disparate, equally unique voices who do not commonly work together leading to an album that lacks both consistency and coherence. While often engaging for the same reasons that My Morning Jacket, Bright Eyes and M. Ward separately are engaging, the album as a whole falls short of the combined songwriters’ potential. In the end, the album is almost saved by those four tracks that match any Pitchfork-induced fantasies about the sounds that M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Jim James would produce if given the chance to collaborate, but these tracks alone cannot make up for the unfocused and occasionally uninteresting nature of the rest.