They first came together in 2004, when Bright Eyes and M. Ward toured with Jim James of My Morning Jacket. It's taken the three busy singer/songwriters, along with indie über-producer Mike Mogis, five years to finish off Monsters of Folk's self-titled debut album and, as expected from three very idiosyncratic frontmen, Monsters of Folk is a real hodgepodge, and the end result sounds as labored as its extended time frame suggests.
To their credit, the four Monsters play everything on the album—no hired guns, no stunt vocalists—and they collectively split the songwriting, although it's easy to tell who wrote what. Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst acquits himself with the most success; "Ahead of the Curve" is one of the finest things he's done in recent years, and "Map of the World" is good enough to remind us why it was so disappointing when he yielded several slots on his last Mystic Valley Band record to his bandmates.
Despite this year's disappointing Hold Time, M. Ward is masterful at weaving delicate trifles into something more substantial, and there are trifles aplenty on Monsters—like the languid "Slow Down Jo" and the fake rockabilly of "Whole Lotta Losin'"—but the only thing that transcends novelty is the melancholy "The Sandman, the Brakeman, and Me."
That leaves James, who opens the record with the downright awful "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F)," a fake funk-lite hymn with unimaginably trite lyrics: "If your love's still around, why do we suffer?" The strained sing-along of "The Right Place" is phony beyond belief, and the rock crunch of "Losin' Yo' Head" becomes predictable after the third bar. "Magic Marker" actually contains the lyrics "How many licks does it take to get...?/Taste and see!" James has always written shitty lyrics, but as evidenced by My Morning Jacket's puzzlingly bad last effort, Evil Urges, he's lost grip of his array of other talents.
The strength of Oberst and Ward's work is that they have always known their limitations, but it's a quality they do not share with James, who goes for broke with every move. It's a laudable intent, but a supergroup should never allow one member to hog the spotlight, and for all the talent that Oberst and Ward possess, they can't cover up James' weaknesses.