My Morning Jacket - Circuital
Release Date: May 31, 2011
Ok so, let's recap. First MMJ were alt-country darlings (see The Tennessee Fire, At Dawn). Then, they were stoner, southern rock gods back from the dead (see It Still Moves). After that there was the back-to-the-land prog fantasia (Z) and then the cape-wearing, scatterbrained pop band (Evil Urges). And along the while, the group transformed themselves into an arena rock monster -- selling out shows in Madison Square Garden -- with legendary shows that are few and far between these days. So, it may seem odd for a band this established part of the fun of unwrapping your new copy of Circuital is wondering which band is going to show up. And the answer is all of them.
The title, Circuital, promised a return or a kind of culmination or return to the band's past. And, if I'm not mistaken, for those of us on the mailing list, the record was touted as a continuation of the evolution began on Z. As a long-time MMJ fan, I have to say I had no idea what that meant and listening to this record, it would be difficulty to drawn any sort of a straight line between Z and Circuital. The easiest album to draw a comparison to is (and some hardcore fans may shudder when I say this)... Evil Urges. In fact, at times Circuital seems like Urges 2.0 -- only this time less goofy masquerading as serious (or vice versa) and more supercharged. But, while Evil Urges came off as a polished romp taking on everything from the Jacket's own past ("Aluminum Park") to old school rap (the lamentable "Highly Suspicious") to Karen Carpenter ("Librarian"), Circuital feels more carefree and more sincere. Oscillating between gargantuan riff-ripe tunes and soft acoustic tunes where you can hear a pin fall in the spaces between Jim James's trademark tenor, this album covers a lot of ground. What's obvious is that MMJ see themselves as the inheritors of a long rock tradition from Floyd to Skynard to Prine to Gaye and this album is huge as they begin not to explore as they did on Urges but actively try to bring everything into the fold. Into the Jacket, if you will.
If the result of Evil Urges was confusion. The goal here is fusion. Having put themselves out on about 5 different limbs in Urges, MMJ works hard to get back to basics on Circuital. The opener "Victory Dance" is a concert-ready foreshadowing of the rest of the album beginning with keyboard work that seems to emerge out of "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream" over which James's trills and spins as the song glides forward until the guitars slowly lose control as the rhythm section pounds leading us to the edge of a precipice that we never quite get over. It's followed by "Circuital" which harkens back to "Dondante" where an acoustic guitar glues a ponderous guitar line down while James riffs over top. "Day is Coming" follows with more James scat and a 60s psychedelic-inspired opening before pumping in some deep rhythm and strings. A sneaking question should be rising for you here: when did My Morning Jacket become a keyboard band? Those yawing guitar solos are absent so far. There's no doubt about the bands musicality, but everything in this album is played close to the vest with keyboards and guitars working as bedmates one laying down rhythm and melody the other popping over and above. Then an unexpected gem flutters out. "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)" is everything that "Librarian" should have been: vulnerable, somber and joyous. It's James's songwriting at its best, disjointed and honest, paradoxical and unmistakably moving. The next two tracks "Outta My System" and "Hangin on to Black Metal" represent the musical status quo for MMJ. If you had to take their band temperature, these two songs would be 5s on the scale of 10. "Outta My System" is an escalating ballad celebrating the follies of youth while "Hangin on to Black Metal" (with a riff that's going to stick in your head for days) is a giant song, kids choir thrown in with smashing guitars and electronic accents big enough to blow the top of the Louisville Palace, which I'm sure they'll do on Tuesday. What's notable about both tracks is the nostalgia that pervades the lines -- here's My Morning Jacket singing about how they used to rock hard. But there's little black metal to "Hangin on to Black Metal." The band reemerges in these tracks as less of the stoner rockers than they once were now with solos that sawed their way out of flying Vs and made your beard grow. There's horns and full orchestration and a fucking kids choir for godsake. It's ridiculously fun, and dare I say it...grown up.
If Circuital is emblematic of anything for MMJ and its fans it should be that this band's chops are incredibly good. And they manage to unfold and unfurl something that has been a long time in the making -- an incredibly good rock album that fuses what past and present in one fell swoop. Evil Urges was a sign that the band that we knew wasn't the one that we would get anymore. Restless and schizo it's outdone by Circuital where the band is in control of their own destiny one that, it's clear now, will never be fully tied to the band's past.
When I was in Louisville last, I happened upon Jim James at the Z bar and did that thing that's so uncomfortable to do (for fans and, no doubt, the people that they're talking to). I thanked him for playing music, told him that it had meant a lot to me to see him in California when I was in grad school and that he had brought me home every time I heard him play. Jim seemed, shall we say, out of it. Disarmed but somewhere else. Maybe he was thinking that he'd have to throw it all away and start over again. Maybe he was thinking that he had an obligation to what he'd done. Maybe he was just high. I couldn't tell you. But, if I saw him, I'd thank him again. We need bands like MMJ -- where music still means something to them. Where songs sound the best as they come blasting out your windows as the summer begins to bake us in. We need bands that are willing to take on the Rock and Roll universe and change it. And particularly groups that are willing to change themselves.