Over a career spanning almost 15 years, Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket have occasionally inspired but frequently frustrated. Their five studio albums, starting with 1999’s Tennessee Fire – still arguably their best – mix moments of heart-stopping, fragile beauty with long spells of shapeless, self-indulgent beardy jamming that have seen them fall short of delivering a truly great work. Now their front man Jim James has opted to go it alone for (sort of; leaving aside his Yim Yames covers album) the first time, and once again, while there are moments of true excellence, it’s close but no cigar.
Opting to play all the instruments, produce and engineer the record himself, the weightily titled Regions Of Light And Sound Of God sees James subtly developing the usual psychedelic folk-rock template of My Morning Jacket, resulting in what’s generally a quieter, more contemplative affair.
He introduces a number of new ingredients to his sound that, by and large, blend in well. In particular, the musical influences of the 1980s are present throughout. Lyrically, James has apparently been inspired by a 1929 graphic novel called God’s Man, which tells of artist’s struggle with temptation and corruption, along with finding true love, and it shows. Throughout the record, there are signs that its creator is struggling to make sense of his own existence, with themes of mortality, the passage of time and mankind’s place in the world all very prominent.
The album gets off to great start with State of The Art (A.E.I.O.U), which recalls Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk with its hushed, ambient piano beginnings slowly building into a funky, rhythmic groove. James’s Neil Young-like, high pitched voice is immediately to the fore, calling out the vowels of the alphabet in sequence like a holy mantra. Next up is Know Til Now, which combines retro synthesizers, spacey dynamics and sweetly cooing vocals to conjure up something that sounds uncannily like Prefab Sprout, one of the most underated bands to emerge from the British independent scene of the ’80s, before shifting gear unexpectedly to reach a stately, jazz-influenced conclusion.
The album reaches a lofty peak with tracks four and five, A New Life and Exploding. The former is truly sublime, rivalling Tennessee Fire’s I Will Be There When You Die as the best song James has written to date. Beginning as a gentle folk strum, after a few bars a shuffling beat joins in and propels the melody to a marvellous wall of sound crescendo, with James crooning like Buddy Holly, but with Phil Spector at the mixing desk. In contrast, Exploding is a wonderfully pure, beautiful guitar instrumental, so fluid and sonically perfect it could be classical virtuoso John Williams plucking the strings.
At the half way point, Regions Of Light And Sound is set fair to be that landmark record that has eluded James in his career to date, but infuriatingly, the remaining tracks fail to maintain the same high standards. Actress bears a bizarre similarity to the soul classic Mercy Mercy Me, but unfortunately, it’s Robert Palmer’s insipid interpretation rather than the definitive Marvin Gaye version that comes to mind. The slightly Arabic-flavoured All Is Forgiven is an exotic-sounding but unlovable stoner’s drone, and ghostly closer God’s Love To Deliver continues in a similar vein, ending proceedings on a disappointingly underwhelming note. It’s almost as if James used up all his best ideas early on and had to resort to jamming by numbers to get the album finished, which is a real shame.
It adds up to a more than decent effort compared to most of James’s contemporaries then, but still the same old nagging doubts of a great talent somehow unfulfilled.