Jim James' 'Uniform Distortion' Wonders How We Can Keep Making the Same Mistakes Over and Over
Uniform Distortion is a brisk and nearly straightforward rock 'n' roll record that takes inspiration from Jim James finding a 1971 distorted photo of "The Illuminated Man" by Duane Michals.
29 June 2018
Jim James' third solo album outside of My Morning Jacket opens with a screeching guitar and self-reflective lyrics. "Just a Fool" is equally a harsh and soft song that opens Uniform Distortion, and immediately fuses the lo-fi guitar style to James' characteristic vocal dynamics and sonic range. The album is a stark departure from James' solo efforts and more reflective in many tracks of My Morning Jacket's output nearly a decade ago, while further looking back at the indie rock elements of the 1990s. James seems to emphasize his vocal performances, too, as an effort to meet the pace and style of the instrumentation, and emit a confrontational and playful attitude.
The build-up for this record included notes on James' inspiration from a 1971 publication, The Last Whole Earth Catalogue, and its inclusion of a distorted photo of "The Illuminated Man" by Duane Michals. James's management subsequently asked Michals for permission to use the photo as an album cover for Unofirm Distortion and was rejected. So, James wrote Michals personally and approval was granted. Promotional materials include James's letter, intending it to "shed some light on the album and James current state of mind".
In addition to James admitted feeling "overwhelmed by the speed of technology and its place in our lives", another admission in his letter perfectly fits the mood of his lyrics on Uniform Distortion and the emphasis on Michals photo as album cover and his effort to gain approval through a personal letter: "when i saw it on the page there it spoke to me so deeply of how my head feels like it is exploding with the amount of information we are forced to consume on a daily basis and how that information is so DISTORTED there is almost no longer any tangible truth … i feel like there is this blanket distortion on society/media and the way we gather our "news" and important information...and more and more of us are feeling lost and looking for new ways out of this distortion and back to the truth...and finding hope in places like the desert where i write this email to you now...finding hope in the land and in the water and in old books offering new ideas and most importantly in each other and love." And the photo appears as the album cover, and it is a distorted vision of Michals original image.
Opener "Just a Fool" is followed by "You Get to Rome", a song that embodies the album's rocking aesthetic with ease, with confidence and playfulness generously weaved into the track. Compared with the self-reflection and societal lamentations that permeate much of this album, "You Get to Rome" also features a good portion of the album's positive outlook, with experiencing the world operating as an early reconciliation to the revelations of lost opportunities that follow in subsequent tracks, including the closing track "Too Good to Be True". Where the album starts with an almost jarring attitude, it ends with a kind of revelation that efforts were without effect and change doesn't affect loss. Simultaneously "Out of Time", the third tracks carries a similar approach, embodied by lyrics that reveal James may be "behind the times or ahead of the times, or just out of touch". The guitar screams and carries this track though, at a speedy pace before unmercifully slowing down as if to relate the impact of realization.
The track "Throwback" takes its writing directly from James using cultural elements the album rails against: social media. Here James quite effectively documents what use of social media results in: looking directly backward, often at exact examples of what came before, and how you or we were then. It also sums up that notion of paying attention to those closest to us in our friends and family, by those moments when we see an update or a picture posted before moving to the next update – by throwing backward the posted media.
On the track "Yes to Everything" James admits to lost opportunities with that constant answer, hammered directly by the refrain "what's beneath the waves" repeatedly sung before a blistering guitar solo crashes through the song's final half. The refrain returns in the last 30 seconds as if to remark that the solo didn't erase what had been lost; this stylistic dynamic with repeatedly loud, fuzzy, screeching guitars signals the impact James felt from the distorted version of Michals photo. The track "No Use Waiting" immediately follows and laments at the impact of lost opportunities precisely, but with far more overbearing instrumentation playing back and forth with James's vocal performance.
The sentiments of "Better Late Than Never" sum up James' inspiration nicely midway through the second half of Uniform Distortion. In under two minutes, the song optimistically revels in a reality where all is absolutely lost through destruction while being watched through distortion. Instrumentation is fast, distorted, and jangled, looking at the immediacy of the present in order to capture the prospect of the future, commenting that lateness to the realities of modern society proves more sustainable to missing out completely. "Over and Over" admits the realization that actions and activities are repeated in modern society, highlighting the "uniform distortion" that prevents opportunities and forces repetition. "How can we make the same mistakes and still carry on …"
What James expressed in his letter to Michals represents a majority of the themes on Uniform Distortion, principally one looking backward to what we previously experienced, and simultaneously present and forward to find those elements again. His thematic approach, documented far more extensively in the letter than included here, is timely and worthwhile. But, given the exact state of society and culture, the impact of his approach feels limited beyond his own fans from his solo career, side-projects, and My Morning Jacket. James's musicianship and carefully crafted stylistic dynamics compete with the very "uniform distortion" he is pushing against with this album.