Circuital opens at a moment of decision. Within a vaguely tribal climate, thanks in part to some strange vocalized war cries, the lyrics form a series of questions. What do I do next? Cry, prophesize or plant some seeds and get to work? All three seem good representations of My Morning Jacket’s career thus far. They’re a band with a serious work ethic, especially when it comes to touring. Jim James’ voice gives their songs both an emotional core and a visionary one. Whether conjuring up big rock ‘n’ roll moments or quiet contemplative ones, there’s a sense that they’re trying to capture a feeling of transcendence.
Career-wise, this might also seem like a moment of decision for the band. They’re coming off a love-hate album, 2008’s Evil Urges, after four albums that each seemed to bring them more accolades and attention than the one before it. Evil Urges seemed to strike audiences as a serious departure, with its occasional forays into sort-of funk and soul. In actuality it wasn’t that out-there exactly, more like the band finally fully integrating their perpetual taste for surprise, as overtly expressed on some of their EPs and singles (2002’s Chocolate and Ice comes to mind), into their proper albums.
Similarly, Circuital at first seems like a reactionary move, a retreat. After two albums recorded outside their hometown of Louisville, they’re returned home and back to their previous working method of finding a big space and settling in it to record. The title track makes some references to going back to their roots, and James and band have brought up that notion in most of the pre-release interviews they’ve done. Musically, though, the album really is right in line with how they’ve been evolving over the years. Most of the songs fit in tone with Evil Urges and its more serious and spacier, but similar, predecessor, 2005’s Z. The band often seems to be both staying in place and moving forward, and that once again is the case, though the moving forward this time is more a step than a leap.
One definition of “circuital” is an indirect route. My Morning Jacket has never been easy to categorize, which hasn’t kept folks from trying. They’ve never just been Neil Young devotees, never just been Southern rock. Here, there are some big guitar riffs that recall the Who, which made David Menconi of Spin magazine misguidedly call it “an alternate version of Quadrophenia”, an album no other Who fan is likely to ever compare this to. The opening track, “Victory Dance”, has a melody quite reminiscent of Phish, though in the bigger picture that’s just as wrong a comparison. My Morning Jacket is as always fitting various pieces together in their own way, so if something recalls one band, something else is going to recall a band coming from a completely different place. On Circuital, there are lonesome folksy songs, a couple melodic boogies, an upbeat number that recalls the Beach Boys but not in the typical harmony-overload way (“Out of My System”), a song of expectation (“The Day Is Coming”) with R&B-ish backing vocals that remind me of P.M. Dawn, of all things, and a brassy, singalong pop song in tribute to metal (“Holding on to Black Metal”), the strangest and most frivolous song.
Throughout the album are references to the journeys we take in life. The songs often carry a feeling of anticipation, or occasionally resolution, as on “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”. That song is, as the band tends at their best to be, surprising, in how it at first seems like a simple expression of happiness, and then James turns his focus towards higher places, looking upwards towards a type of heaven, even, while the song progresses from a quite pretty little acoustic ditty into an even prettier, string-laden ballad with hints of gospel. James imagines an ideal place, or really a state of being, and then sings sweet-nothings in his falsetto until they rise up and float away. There’s a similar spiritual longing coursing through some of the more uptempo rock songs, especially “Victory Dance” and the rapturous “First Light”, where James memorably sings, “first I was an ancient / then I was an infant / now I am alive”, before describing a quest for something that will carry him forward and upward. The song gets overwhelmed by horns and power chords as James’s singing gets ever more ecstatic. In energy and philosophy it represents the overall My Morning Jacket endeavor quite well.
As popular as the band gets, and as often as younger bands come along that seem to emulate them in some small way, My Morning Jacket still are always walking their own path. “Slow, Slow Tune” speaks to this in a fun and affecting way, as James sings of the song’s slow pace as “not the meter of today”. The song reminds us of their willingness to confound, and then builds up in a rather glorious way, guitars shining and pointing skyward. “The future now you own,” James sings.
Circuital’s closing song, “Movin’ Away”, opens with a lone, lovely piano, before James comes in singing especially softly and also especially in the mode of letting his voice rise up, soar around the room, and then pierce down right into your heart. It’s one of his best vocal performances on record yet, his voice continually seeking the next plateau as the song proceeds. The song’s talk of moving somehow brings the album’s tales of searching to a comfortable close. It’s also a sweet love song: “hope your heart will be where my home is.” It beautifully brings this sixth chapter in the My Morning Jacket saga to a close, reminding us that they’re a band that’s always on the lookout for something new, even as their moving forward also involves circling back. As he sings, “And though there’s a new life line / I won’t forget the one I left behind.”
// Notes from the Road
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