After hearing their debut album A Livingroom Hush, I was convinced that Jaga Jazzist was a group that in the future would put out something that simply blew my mind. While their debut didn't quite sustain the brilliance that the opening track set forth, it had enough ideas and moments that a little seed of hope was planted in my mind. With their follow-up The Stix, the group seemed to get stuck in some sort of middling groove that never really broke free into the open territory that I felt they were capable of, and while there were a few tracks on the release that stood out, it's rarely one of those releases that I go back to.
For those that have never heard Jaga Jazzist (and even for those who have), What We Must may come as a bit of a surprise. It certainly did to me, as the group goes in a much different direction than they had on their previous couple releases, ditching much of the programmed electronics and ultra-precise instrumentation for something more expansive and (dare I say?) massive. Whereas previous releases never really felt like the work of a group that ballooned to something like 10 musicians, What We Must does so on many tracks, bursting forth with a power that the group has never unleashed before, and touching on everything from progressive rock to horn-laced post rock that stands up to sprawling collectives like Godspeed You! Black Emperor at moments.
With seven tracks that average seven minutes apiece in running length, What We Must is also probably the least radio-friendly album from the group, but that hardly matters. "All I Know Is Tonight" opens the release with wave after wave of woozy guitar, horns, vocals, and little sonic touches like chimes and tripped-out keyboards. It ebbs and flows in a natural way, rushing forth with a powerful blast before pulling back to subdued stillness and finally bursting with release after release. "Stardust Hotel" comes right back with some of the same elements, weaving huge walls of horns, guitars, and keyboards into an anthematic track that borders on cheese but never quite crosses the line, rocking out with just enough distortion to keep one from thinking the group is crossing into "Live At The Acropolis" mode.
Despite their best intentions, the group still does get too noodly at times, but unlike some groups who do the same thing, Jaga Jazzist manages to keep things tied together a little bit more by simply keeping things so interesting sonically. "I Have A Ghost, Now What?" runs well over seven minutes long and never really seems to lock into much of a sustained hook, but that's part of the fun as the group rushes through vocal passages, a guitar/vibraphone jam, some hyper-breathy horn/keyboard sections, and enough flutes to appeal to a Jethro Tull addict.
And even though they seem to get off course at times, one of the best tracks on the entire release (and indeed one of the best things that the group has ever done) is "Swedenborgske Rom," a nearly nine-minute epic that builds ever-so-slowly before introducing a quiet piano melody that is then layered-upon and completely blown out the door with such a huge wall of beautiful guitars/drums/synth/piano/horns/vocals that it will have you playing the track on repeat while you get goosebumps. It sounds like Sigur Ros at their mightiest, and reminds me that Jaga Jazzist is still a force to be reckoned with. With that, I can forgive them a bit when tracks like "Mikado" cross into near cornball territory. What We Must is a release worth hearing, even if you haven't liked previous work from Jaga Jazzist. It feels like a turning point, and hopefully there's no going back from here.