My Morning Jacket, Circuital
Kentucky-bred, bearded rock giants My Morning Jacket first made a name for themselves with their third record, 2003’s It Still Moves, an album that had critics raving, coining them as the modern day Lynyrd Skynyrd with its epic Southern guitar jams including the face-melting “Run Thru,” the rollicking “Dancefloors” and the five minutes of non-stop rock fury that is “One Big Holiday.” From there, My Morning Jacket hit the road and hit the road hard, building up an incomparable reputation over the past decade as one of the best live bands on the planet with their ferocious energy and their flexibility musically onstage. In the studio, the Louisville quintet built a reputation as true rock ‘n’ roll chameleons on their next two albums, beautifully contrasting the alt-country and Southern rock of their first three albums with the masterfully spacey Z and the polarizing funk and soul of Evil Urges. On Evil Urges, their eccentric frontman and showman Jim James (who goes by the unusual alias Yim Yames in his solo work), showcased his ability to go from Neil Young to Prince rapture-fast while the band displayed their ability to tackle any and every genre. Their sixth album, Circuital, finds James and the gang channeling live legends of the past (i.e., The Who, The Allman Brothers) with mostly positive results.
Circuital gallops in with “Victory Dance,” an ominous prog-rock opus that brilliantly builds in intensity like an army slowly charging to the battlefront. The darkness of “Victory Dance” slowly lifts into the larger-than-life title track, which works as sort of a microcosm of the band itself. The eerie bookends on “Circuital” are reminiscent of their work on Z, which lifts into a rural riff that sounds straight from The Allman Brothers celebrated guitar instrumental “Elizabeth,” which is where the song really hits its stride, with James’ earnest voice soaring above the bouncy rhythm and flourishing piano before finishing with a triumphant solo from lead guitarist Carl Broemel. Not only does the music fit the bill, but the lyrics also work as a thesis statement for these rocking road junkies. While It Still Moves’ timeless country ballad “Golden” captured the excitement and promise of departing for a life on the road, “Circuital” now finds the band not road-weary after all these long years of non-stop touring but rather grateful and still considering the road “hallowed ground.”
Jim James has said that several of the songs off the new record were actually intended for two scrapped Muppets projects; one for a new version of the Electric Mayhem band (the one with Animal on drums) in a Gorillaz-style tour where MMJ would play behind the curtain while Muppet holograms bashed away onstage, and the other for music for the new Muppets movie coming out this fall. While the Muppets requests were both rescinded, the songs that ended up on the album from the projects are quite elementary yet enjoyable—as you may imagine a Muppets song may be. “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is simple enough in its stripped-down, country-folk nature but is also simply beautiful, especially in its rambling finish that brings to mind the good-natured folk of one of James’ idols: John Prine. Another Muppets scrap is “Outta My System,” which works as an excellent power-pop nugget with lyrics and rhymes that would fit alongside anything off of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. “The Day Is Coming” combines George Michael-esque dream-pop with a ska-tinged, shoegaze vibe sounding like the misty-eyed older brother to Z’s fan favorite “Off the Record.”
While songs like “Outta My System” and “Circuital” are instant MMJ favorites, the clear cut highlight on Circuital has to be the unflappably cool “Holdin on to Black Metal,” which is sure to be one of the best songs of the year. The song stars a swinging '70s psychedelic groove, a children’s choir straight off a Pink Floyd record, piercing horns and James doing his best Curtis Mayfield a la Superfly as he sympathizes with the “misunderstood” genre of black metal.
For all its bright spots, there are a few points on Circuital that are simply flat and even a bit dreary—something My Morning Jacket has never been. Despite its ringing riffs and Who-ish opening, “First Light” falls flat with its bland, grade-school lyrics and melody. “You Wanna Freak Out” has the ethereal airiness of something off of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and builds majestically before quickly cutting into the aptly titled “Slow Slow Tune” but could have been better served being fleshed out into four minutes rather than two. While standing well on their own, back-to-back ballads “Slow Slow Tune” and “Movin Away” make for a slightly lackadaisical finish. “Slow Slow Tune” pulls from M. Ward, a band mate of Jim James’ in folk supergroup Monsters of Folk, with its calm classic sway and James’ deep croon, but the song is truly highlighted by the aspects that best pull from their own past, like when Carl Broemel’s axe does the singing on the sort of grand guitar finish that only My Morning Jacket can provide. Closer “Movin Away” is an old soul’s piano waltz that wonderfully displays the range of Jim James’ voice, but it does little else, as it never seems to climb out from under the sheets.
Production-wise, Circuital was recorded in the center of a large church gym in Louisville and was produced by James himself alongside Tucker Martine (Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists). Despite the unique recording locale, besides a select few tracks on Circuital (“Day Is Coming,” “Victory Dance,” “Holdin on to Black Metal”) the album keeps things fairly buttoned-up, taking little to no liberties with its production style, which is rather disappointing as it fails to always capture the feverish energy that My Morning Jacket is able to deliver.
Like many highly anticipated albums this year (Radiohead, TV On the Radio, Strokes), Circuital is plenty good but compared to their best work, it leaves something to be desired. If nothing else, the real jurisdiction on these songs will come when seeing them fleshed out and full-blooded live, as all MMJ songs, like the band, seem to find a home and purpose on the road.