Does “Into the Woods” Make Any Sense? A Closer Look at ‘Z’ After 13 Years

It’s been 13 years to the day since the release of My Morning Jacket’s prolific fourth studio album, Z. If you haven’t had a chance to sit down and really digest the album in it’s beautiful entirety, it’s highly suggested you do so. The offerings of reggae and dub influenced music set the tone of MMJ’s uniquely curated sound, and their well-crafted songwriting style provides a satiating listening experience for those looking to hear something different than the reverb-washed identity the band had presented in past works. If you do take the time to listen through, there’s almost surely to be one song that perks your ears. Polarizing as it is, “Into the Woods” serves an interesting function in the context of the album. There is a lot to be said about the gumption the band possesses to add this specific song, on this specific album. Although the song seems out of place to many, the lyrical content takes precedence over the atypical instrumental backing in this instance.

According to an interview with Pitchfork, guitarist Carl Broemel said the song went through several iterations before the final version was culminated. This is evident, as the song makes a lot of use of specific sound effects. The ethereal opening offers chirping birds and shouting children, like you’ve been placed in a pleasant park as a passive observer of the world. While the initial mood is rather bright, this park is set on the edge of a dark tree line. Jim James’ voice comes in softly over top of a carnival-themed organ dirge. His first words: “A kitten on fire/ A baby in a blender/ Both sound as sweet/ as a night of surrender.” That is a very jarring intro in relation to the rest of the album, where the lyrics are much less image-evoking. Instrumentally also, it’s a complete detachment from any prior tracks. For one, the carnival themed backing track is an unfamiliar canvas for the group’s sound at the time. It yields a completely different feel while maintaining the spacey, reverb washed guitars, drums, and vocals MMJ has leaned on so heavily through their discography.

James’ narrator goes on to lay out a plan for if life gets too “wheezy”; “Put in more than you could ever get out.” Uplifting enough. The narrator suggests that you should just work harder, even if you don’t get an equal return. It’s not the return that matters, rather the preoccupation of the work and perhaps the societal (not personal) return it offers. One might dissent, saying that you get out what you put in. There’s no room for contradicting opinions here though. The narrator doesn’t offer advice, rather they command it. “Now open your mouth/ here comes the spoon/ you’re gonna eat what I give you/ and you’re gonna like it real good.” Plainly forceful, the narrator deters any kind of reflection on their solution. This makes sense within the context of the song. The narrator doesn’t want to be vulnerable to anyone per the comment on how sweet a night of surrender is compared to babies in blenders. They are essentially following their own rules- and only their own rules. They avoid self-reflection and vulnerability at almost all costs. Anyone not following the laid-out rules isn’t even recognized, and if they are recognized at all, they are being spoon-fed the narrator’s ideology. It almost seems like the narrator isn’t aware of the fact that their forceful method for conveying their ideology is off-putting for an average folk with how casually the James emotes the lyrics.

The song continues to add shock value after the first chorus, offering musings on the nature of…self-love, and an opinion on its worth compared to love coming from others. “A good shower head and my right hand the two best lovers that I ever had/ Now if you find you agree with what I just said/ You’d better find a new love/ And let ’em into your head.” This is a striking moment of self-reflection from a narrator who is painted as being hard-headed and unable to open up to others. Something in the chorus clues the listener in to why the sudden change of heart. It also starts to become clear that the narrator is the Wonderful Man from the fourth track in the album, “What a Wonderful Man”.

In the fourth track, James characterizes a Wonderful Man. This man has the best opinions, is completely understanding of others in an almost psychic capacity and is able to relate with people without speaking much. Although he possesses the qualities of a leader of people, his lifestyle is completely independent of the people who admire him. Because of this, he’s unable to properly connect with anyone- more importantly, he cannot connect with normal, modern people.

This isn’t for a lack of effort. Notice the entirety of “What a Wonderful Man” is in the past tense from the viewpoint of someone who knew the Man. The person describing the Wonderful Man remarks how they never realized what a great person the Wonderful Man was until they found out his cause; “I never knew for sure what a wonderful man he was/ Till the day I found out his cause/ Was to do it for all of us.” That is to say, the Wonderful Man put in a ton of work to get these people on the right track. No one recognized him. He effectively put in more than he could ever get out.

The people, to this Wonderful Man, are part of a flock of refuters who don’t understand what he is saying. In what might be a coincidence, the Wonderful Man ventures into the woods, much like the Nietzsche character Zarathustra. The Man is a bit of a Zarathustra character overall. He rids himself of dogmatic presuppositions that are appealing to outsiders, but does so before the “flock” is ready to abandon “love(ing) what is wrong”. This shaped his worldview and prompted his venture into the exile in “Into the Woods.” The Wonderful Man’s dark turn in tone happened when the people who were supposed to support him refuted him, forcing him to reevaluate. While in the woods, the Wonderful Man begins to self-reflect as mentioned earlier.

This culminates in the seventh track, “Anytime”. The Wonderful Man realizes the value of moving on from criticism and exile, opting instead to learn how to express his ideals more clearly than just shoving them down people’s throats. While he realizes what he is doing is for the good of the world, his manner of working against the grain and coming off strong like a modern day prophet for existentialism had put him in a lonely state and exposed his weaknesses. His fear of self-reflection comes to a bit of a resolve here. An ultimate level of vulnerability is self-expression as a mode of communication. And now the Wonderful Man has realized the need for self-expression is necessary to get his point across to the flock.

On first listen, “Into the Woods” doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps this musing has created a space for the song as a kind of climax to an origin story of a narrator on the search for fulfillment that may (or may not) be the subject of the album. Whether or not there is in fact an inherent meaning for all of this, no one can really say. Giving the song some extra meaning at least adds to the experience of listening to the album. Also, is it weird that this Zarathustra stuff came up and the album is vaguely named Z? I want to hear some opinions on this, it’s such a great album and deserves some revamped attention for it’s unlucky 13th year. I hope to do more deep-listening and theorizing on this record in the future! Such a great listen.