On his first solo album, 2013’s dauntingly titled Regions Of Light And Sound Of God, My Morning Jacket front man Jim James sought to subtly develop the established psychedelic folk-rock template of his parent band, with retro synthesisers playing a prominent role in what was an uncharacteristically meditative, ambient record.
2016’s Eternally Even was a more focused and conventional although still musically ambitious collection, but James’s latest outing, Uniform Distortion, sees him strip things right back to a brand of no frills, classic Southern rock that could have been recorded at any time over the past half century.
Perhaps even more than My Morning Jacket’s earlier, less experimental albums, Uniform Distortion faithfully channels the spirit of stellar forebears like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with searing, ragged electric guitars immediately to the fore. Opener Just A Fool swoops straight on the listener with its piercing riff, counterbalancing neatly James’s lyric about the happy go lucky futility of stereotypical rock and roll life.
On the next track, When In Rome, he arguably takes things a little far with what sounds like a tongue-in-cheek parody of Status Quo’s risible Rockin’ All Over The World (even proclaiming ‘let’s rock’ at one point) but he’s right back on form with the wistful, soaring Throwback, which would comfortably hold its own on a classic Young/Crazy Horse album: think Zuma or Ragged Glory. It’s followed by No Secrets, which delivers more of the same, with James’s skyscraper tenor allowed to really cut loose.
Throughout Regions…, there were signs that its creator was struggling to make sense of his own existence, wrestling with themes of mortality, the passage of time and mankind’s place in the world. Lyrically, Uniform Distortion is preoccupied with the increasingly ubiquitous role of technology in our modern lives – which makes James’s choice to adopt an organic, nostalgia-steeped rock sound seem pointed.
Song titles like the aforementioned Throwback, Out Of Time and Better Late Than Never leave us under no illusions that this is a record that seeks to look back with warmth on a simpler age, but on penultimate track Over And Over, James also reflects on the fact that ultimately, the same actions occur again and again throughout human existence, with ‘uniform distortion’ forcing repetition.
It’s weighty stuff, but anyone feeling slightly befuddled at this point will be soothed by the soulful beauty of closer Too Good To Be True, the kind of life-affirming, otherworldly ballad that James has always excelled at. Like many of James’s records both as a solo artist and in My Morning Jacket, Uniform Distortion occasionally suffers dips in quality control and consequently the truly great album you feel he’s capable of is once again frustratingly elusive. But it’s still an absolute blast.