As any familiar listener already knows, My Morning Jacket have long harbored an affinity for recording in environments that create a tangible sense of the music echoing through a physical space. As the Louisville, Ky.-based quintet's career has progressed, its albums have sounded less and less like the band was recorded live from inside a cavern and more like bandleader Jim James has learned to apply the sonic character of the room onto specific instruments. Along the way, My Morning Jacket have, to varying degrees, flirted with pop and then pulled back again; they've also incorporated touches of jazz and R&B. For their last album, 2011's Circuital, Jones and company opted once again for a live-in-a-big-room approach, but the final mixes contained more texture than early efforts such as their 1999 debut The Tennessee Fire and its follow-up, 2001's At Dawn.

This time around, for their seventh studio album The Waterfall, it's clear from the opening note that My Morning Jacket have learned to use space as just one element in their sonic palette, rather than as the single most prominent factor. James opens The Waterfall with the verses, "The answer floats on down the farthest shore of the mind / Roll the dice and sail the ship and all the doors will open" -- essentially an announcement that he's employing water symbolism to illustrate the sense of uncertainty he felt while writing this new material. Musically, though, My Morning Jacket have never sounded so decisive. After going back and forth between gritty roots-psychedelia and pop polish, MMJ land smack in the middle with The Waterfall -- arguably nailing the best qualities of both.

They also end up with the most varied album of their career. One of the most striking things about this new set of songs is how effortlessly they flow into one another without the album ever starting to sound complacent. From falsetto "woo-woo" hooks on "Compound Fracture" to grand, folky soft-rock on "In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)" to an acoustic campfire vibe of "Get the Point," The Waterfall captures several different shades of My Morning Jacket's trademark moodiness. Wisely, the band doesn't overplay its hand -- the eerie, haunted glow of "Spring (Among the Living)" packs an especially dramatic whallop precisely because it stands out from the rest of the songs.

Especially encouraging is the fact that The Waterfall is actually the first of two albums that My Morning Jacket have in store. (The untitled companion offering is rumored for release later this year.) Where so many bands are well into their decline by their seventh record, My Morning Jacket buck that trend with The Waterfall, the latest example that some artists are capable of getting stronger and more creatively focused as they age.