“I hate the phrase going back to our roots,” said My Morning Jacket front man Jim James of his band’s sixth studio album, Circuital. “But for this record we came home and made it in Kentucky. And it just felt a lot like it did when we were first starting out.”
There’s something about returning to one’s roots – a nostalgic longing for the way the music felt the first time out, the scrappiness of youth and the headstrong assurance that your band is the best band out there. So, while My Morning Jacket have constantly reinvented themselves, Circuital is not so much a musical return to form as it is a return to the grounded ideals that made their first attempts so effortlessly appealing.
The band returned to Louisville for this one, recording most of the album live in a church gymnasium with Tucker Martine (whom James first met while contributing his syrupy background vocals to Laura Veirs‘ excellent 2010 album, July Flame). After the divisively funky Evil Urges and Z before it (which quizzically drew comparisons to Radiohead, of all bands), Circuital feels somehow both grounded in the soil that spawned it and operatic in scope. At times, it sounds like a cross between Wilco and The Who, if the two ever met for a jam session in outer space.
Album opener Victory Dance starts things off on the wrong foot. It’s brooding and heavy, but as if in delicate counterpoint, it’s offset by a trilling, falsetto-heavy hook that grates in all the ways a good pop hook should not. Certainly, MMJ is no pop band, but a hook’s a hook. The song builds to a pounding climax before it segues into the album’s excellent seven-minute title track.
Circuital sets the album’s mood excellently, laying out concerns for “spinning out gracefully” only to land “right in the same place we started out”. Here, MMJ unleash all they’re capable of, bouncing from quiet, Police-style muted picking to pounding Quadrophenia era The Who grandeur, and ending up with scorching, loose guitar work reminiscent of Jeff Tweedy‘s finest work on A Ghost Is Born. James largely forsakes the falsetto (that made Evil Urges such an odd proposition) and revels in his always charming, languid, reverb-soaked croon. And all is as it should be.
Other standouts include the lilting, acoustic ballad, Wonderful (The Way I Feel), on which James – out front and vulnerable, barely cloaked by picked acoustic guitar and pocket-symphony strings – sings of contentment, and pledges: “I’m goin’ where there ain’t no fear. I’m goin’ where the spirit is near.” Lovely, indeed. On the classic-rock tinged Outta My System, he sings the ballad of an aging rabble-rouser: “They told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen. Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison.”
Holding On To Black Metal – complete with children’s choir – is as experimental as anything MMJ have ever done, sounding both southern-fried heavy and ’70s soul groovy. It could be the soundtrack to some weirdo rogue detective B-movie à la Shaft. Slow Slow Tune is just what it sounds like it would be, impossibly slow and subdued, James wrapped in loving reverb, and living right in the pocket where his voice really shines (“I hope the future for you’s glistening,” he sings).
Circuital is a return to form, but it brings into play all the disparate evolutionary elements that have made My Morning Jacket a staple of the summer festival circuit. They’re in top form here, and Circuital is as much a look to the future as it is a nod to the past.