Jim James, 'Regions of Light and Sound of God'
When the language of the soul enters rock 'n' roll, its spirituality tends to be all-inclusive, freeform and wary of answers. It's a patchwork affair, through and through. In the midst of it all, there’s a sort of spiritual tradition in music not given over to the worshipful declarations of Johnny Cash or the inner voyages of Jimi Hendrix—and it's this middle ground that My Morning Jacket’s Jim James steps into with his official solo debut, Regions of Light and Sound of God.
James has unofficially noodled around without his Neil-Young-meets-the-space-age band before. He’s played with indie supergroup Monsters of Folk, helped out on a Woody Guthrie tribute album and found time to release an EP of George Harrison covers under the were-you-even-trying pseudonym Yim Yames.
It’s these Harrison covers that tip off what Regions of Light might be trying to accomplish. After years of stifling Lennon-McCartney oppression, Harrison recorded the pastoral All Things Must Pass, considered the best post-Beatles solo record by many. It also serves as the blueprint for what James seems to be heading for with his own first solo album.
It's a lesson almost all good musicians learn eventually: songs all stripped down and willowy can make just as much of an impact as 10-minute-long “Free Bird” barnstormers. With My Morning Jacket’s live shows, James has proved himself to be more than adept at creating the latter. But for every “Off the Record” or “Mahgeetah” found on their albums, there was always a song like “Golden,” which maintained a quiet power more authoritative than many a metal song.
Regions of Light is the kind of album that not only capitalizes on this kind of quiet power but attempts to build a whole city on its foundation. Gone are the Southern rock overtones that were once James’ calling card. Fans of the last My Morning Jacket release, Circuital, will be happy to see James has kept up diplomacy with the keyboards while abandoning the heavy percussion of that release. The opener, “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.),” revolves around a simplistic and soulful piano part, while “Know Til Now,” the album’s lead-off single, weds the initial wave of heavenward organs with a Moby-style drum loop, eventually morphing into a slick jazz jam.
“Dear One” intones what seems to be a prayer to and for a lover: Dear one / You always pushed the boundaries of my soul / We fly, found love and finally gained control / Now all life unfolds for us only / Dear one. It's a sentiment almost every rock artist seems to find a semi-new way of rephrasing at one time or another. Acid trips and wild nights aside, the '60s guitar-wielders James takes his cues from seem to agree that the most mind-expanding and heart-enlarging experience is to love and be loved by another. James doesn’t say so particularly better than anyone else, but he makes the idea his own—and, Lord knows, we could all use the reminder.
Jim James inculcates Regions of Light and Sound of God with a mystic’s sense of urgency. Namely, the most pressing and immediate matter is to learn how to quietly appreciate the transcendent power of love. It's a casually sublime album confident in its ability to impress its listeners like a baptismal ride down a lazy river.