If there was ever a band whose live shows outweighed their albums, it’s My Morning Jacket. The band built their reputation on their epic live shows, and by the time 2005’s Z rolled around, they were packing tents at Bonnaroo on a yearly basis. In the studio, the triumph of Z was followed by the weird experimentation of 2008’s Evil Urges, where many fans, were turned off by Jim James’ falsetto and the oddball sounds of “Highly Suspicious.” Still, their live act was perfect, with the missteps of the album disappearing underneath a wall of rock and roll. In the downtime between records, James took on a few side projects, most notably his gorgeous, spare EP of George Harrison covers (under the moniker Yim Yames) and his Monsters of Folk side project with Conor Oberst and M. Ward, which brought him back towards the sound MMJ perfected early in their career.
So after the dust has settled on Evil Urges, its tour, and James’ extracurricular work, MMJ has returned with Circuital, an album that isn’t as instantly endearing like Z, but not as instantly divisive as Evil Urges. For the recording process, the band took a cue from their live successes, recording most of it in a circle in a church instead. The result is an album that feels both polished and spontaneous, one that has the wrinkles of the recording process smoothed out in advance. There are still unexpected flourishes, like the horns at the start of opener “Victory Dance” or the choir in “Holding on to Black Metal,” but for the most part, Circuital doesn’t rely on studio enhancements the way its predecessor did.
What’s also noticeable about the record is its relative brevity. At only 45 minutes, it is their shortest record to date, using its tracks in the same concise manner Z did. The only two longer tracks come at the beginning with “Victory Dance” and the title track, which blend into each other, sonically bringing together the ambitious side of the band (think “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 1”) and the guitar jaunts they’re also fond of (i.e. “Mahgeeta”) into a 13 minute suite.
The record holds this way through the solid “The Day is Coming” and the slightly over sentimental acoustic ballad “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” “Outta My System” finds James returning to the same goofy storytelling that he first tried on Evil Urges’ “Librarian,” this time with the protagonist relating that he was told not to “smoke drugs” instead of falling in love with a pretty librarian. Lyrically, it’s the weakest song on the record, but the sound is classic MMJ.
What follows track that’s likely to divide fans as much as “Highly Suspicious” in “Holding on to Black Metal.” Inspired by a track from a ’60s Thai pop compilation James says he was mesmerized by, it features call and response with a choir and bright horn flourishes that would seem out of place if the band had never breached that territory before. It’s pretty far from “One Big Holiday,” the band’s signature song, but as James told Vulture recently, “The song is about holding on to things that others might consider outdated, like holding on to certain kinds of music for too long and not graduating to other kinds.” Anyone that’s ever listened through MMJ’s discography knows that they can be restless, and haven’t ever really stuck to a consistent sound. While “Holding on to Black Metal” is contradictory to the songs on At Dawn or It Still Moves, it’s well within the band’s wheelhouse, and therefore, a seemingly natural evolution.
Though the first half of the record is easily the better, “You Wanna Freak Out” provides a fantastic highlight for the flip side. Just as “Smokin from Shootin” provided a nice “classic” sound to the latter half of Evil Urges, “Freak Out” finds the band at their most comfortable, jamming out to the sound that led many fans to fall in love with them in the first place. While it won’t ever earn itself a place on a greatest hits compilation, it’s an enjoyable track that will garner repeat listens for old fans. Though the funky “First Light” is another fun track, “Slow Slow Tune” and “Moving Away” are uninspiring, failing to match the ambition of the rest of the record.
Following It Still Moves, Rolling Stone referred to My Morning Jacket as “the Radiohead of the Midwest,” a designation that seemed incredibly odd given the vast difference in sound between the two bands. That comparison seems more apt today, however. Radiohead pushed the boundaries of guitar rock, even breaking from entirely, just as My Morning Jacket pushed the boundaries of the “Southern” roots rock they made their name from, also departing from it entirely at times over the past five years. That’s not to say that Circuital is by any means a paradigm shifting album (that would be Z), but instead a solid record that further cements the band’s reputation for originality and resistance to the notion of a signature My Morning Jacket sound.
Michael’s Score: 78
TUiW Grade: B+