Jim James is the singer for My Morning Jacket. He does a good part of the band’s guitar work, and writes pretty much all the songs. He also is the band’s in-house producer. So why the need, after nearly 15 years, for a solo album, when My Morning Jacket are still a going concern? Isn’t MMJ pretty much James’ show, anyway?
The answer must be in the process. No group decisions, disagreements, or arguments. Also, fewer constraints on time, and less pressure for commercial returns. That must be it, because Regions of Light and Sound of God does not alter the trajectory much from MMJ’s last few albums. It is, however, much less produced-sounding and more intimate and stripped-down-sounding than, say, Circuital or Evil Urges. Guitars are mostly replaced by keyboards and skeletal beatbox rhythms. This small-scale approach has its benefits and drawbacks.
Regions of Light and Sound of God has more of a haunted, spooky vibe than anything James has done since MMJ’s It Still Moves. James’ yearning, slightly drawly voice is in itself an emotive, often beautiful instrument. Turns out James knows how to capture its essence better than any of the producers the bands have worked with of late. Throughout Regions of Light and Sound of God, it’s presented richly, fully, and warmly, with the right amount of reverb. You really need look no further than “A New Life”, an acoustic stunner that recalls the best of early solo-period John Lennon…that is, before it turns into something more like a showtune.
And this is one of the drawbacks of James’ do-it-yourself approach. He sometimes overdoes things, probably because he can. Regions of Light and Sound of God is inspired in large part by a graphic novel from the 1920s. Apparently, James saw parallels between his own recent experiences and those of the novel’s protagonist. Fair enough. But sometimes James seems to get lost in the mythology of his own album, letting the general atmosphere and sense of wonder take precedence over the songs and arrangements. This does not necessarily have to be a problem, but James is, after all, a singer-songwriter.
The opening duo of “State of the Art” and “Know ‘Til Now” are powerful, not least because they are relatively tight. “State of the Art” starts off with just a somber piano figure and James’ voice, then takes a couple minutes to build to the sort of moody epic that My Morning Jacket do so well. It’s not far removed from “Victory Dance” from Circuital, actually. “Know ‘Til Now” is, for lack of a better term” gothic Southern soul, with its stop-start rhythm, groovy bassline, and seductive vocals. It’s not exactly a new side of James, but it sheds new light on a side of him he has revealed before. That makes it one of Regions of Light and Sound of God‘s highlights.
But then “Dear One” does its best to kill the mood through sheer clumsiness. All “dark”, heavy synth pads, “cryptic” bassline, and “deep” lyrics about the “ticking synchronicity of time”, it just comes close, too close, to self-parody. James’ disinterested, mumbling vocal doesn’t help, either. And then you have the cheesy synthetic oboe or whatever that is on the would-be eerie, Eastern-tinged “All Is Forgiven”. You can’t tell if James is really on a new spiritual plane, or just caught up in Bowser’s castle in a particularly intense, pot-assisted game of Mario Kart. “Actress”, by contrast, is all the better for wearing its easy-going nature on its sleeve.
Regions of Light and Sound of God ends up evincing contradictions that are common to such solo albums by well-established bandleaders. Its vision, however good-intentioned, is a bit overambitious, while its execution and production are a bit undercooked. Wouldn’t the best tracks be even better as My Morning Jacket songs? Somewhere along the line, James seems to have had a very personal epiphany, and you can’t really blame him for wanting to share it in equally personal music. The first half of “A New Life” notwithstanding, it’s just not some of his best music.