For nearly 20 years and through seven studio albums, Jim James has led My Morning Jacket through a whirlwind of psychedelic Americana experimentalism, in many ways out-Wilcoing Wilco. The band’s music has gradually grown bolder and more innovative over the years, and you could make a case for James’ brief solo career being a sort of microcosm of this kind of stylistic shift.
James’ first solo album, 2013’s Regions of Light and Sound of God, has an idiosyncratic, meditative vibe to it, but there’s definitely song structure at work. His follow-up, Eternally Even, takes the weirdness several steps further, resulting in a bit of a gooey mess.
Which is not to say it’s bad. In fact, there are many moments of rich sonic beauty and transcendence. But you don’t need a press release to figure out that many of the songs here were largely built from jam sessions. The relaxed, loose feel of the album is refreshing, and while the lack of structure may seem off-putting to the casual listener, Eternally Even will likely benefit from repeated listenings as the bold production choices creep out of the tracks over time.
Teaming up with producer Blake Mills (who previously worked his magic on Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color), James digs up an arsenal of fuzzy, psychedelic, almost prog-leaning textures, with walls of vintage keyboards and over-modulated soul grooves. Opening track “Hide in Plain Sight” begins with two minutes of lazy instrumental tripping, with guitars and keyboards ripping apart the song’s fabric like some lost Flaming Lips demo, before James’ vocals creep in. “You don’t know / You can’t see / It ain’t right / “Did you think you could hide in plain sight?”
One of the disadvantages of this type of formless, jam-heavy structure is that there is a bit of a sameness to the songs, to the extent that the album’s second track, “Same Old Lie”, almost sounds like an extension of its predecessor (it probably derived from the same jam session). “It’s the same old lie you been readin’ about / Bleedin’ out, now who’s getting cheated out? / You best believe it’s the silent majority / If you don’t vote, it’s on you, not me?” It’s inevitable most artists will get around to making a 2016 election album, and James is apparently no exception (could the title of the album refer to our two-party system, or am I overthinking this?).
While psychedelia is a defining feature of Eternally Even, it’s definitely filtered through classic soul. In fact, “stoner funk” is probably the one term that came to mind most often during my initial listens. I’d wager serious money that Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On was in heavy rotation on James’ turntable during the making of this album. “In the Moment” is anchored by an irresistible Fender Rhodes and complemented with muted horns, playful bass and a gently shifting tempo that would make Sly proud. At the same time, the seductive crooning and spacey funk of “The World is Smiling Now” sounds like a lazy tribute to Bill Withers (with a dash of Curtis Mayfield).
In fact, the sounds and overall sonic concept of Eternally Even seem to have a lot more to do with the narcotic experimental nature of epic ‘70s rock and soul than anything My Morning Jacket ever attempted. “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger” is split into two parts, with the songs connecting roughly at the album’s halfway point, essentially spelling out James’ unspoken desire for the album to be consumed on the two-sided vinyl format (the album even clocks in at a single-record friendly run time of roughly 40 minutes). The first part of “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger” is completely instrumental, allowing James and the musicians to explore the groove with a variety of largely keyboard-driven riffs. The second part glides in and James’ relaxed, lower-register vocal is soulful and reflective, recalling a funkier Leonard Cohen.
The title track closes the album with James crooning over a ballad tempo and a bed of soothing organ. “Sun’s out/ Not a thought about the rain / No trace of tears or pain / I hope you have a wonderful life.” Eternally Even is thoughtful and contemplative on the subject of war and modern society, but also refreshingly eloquent on simple matters of love and emotion. It’s an album that takes a deep dive into the warmth and richness of psychedelic soul and is a notable chapter in the musical life of Jim James.
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