By Alex Biles, University of Michigan
Somewhere in my Documents folder, between a half-finished column about submarines and the electronic version of a resume that I submitted to Perkins Family Restaurant, lies a review of the title track for My Morning Jacket’s latest offering. I never got around to posting it, but I end with a wistful attempt to justify any hard-ons upon letting the 7-and-a-half minute epic soak in. Indeed, the title track was a welcome sign from a band that has lost some of their luster among diehards in recent years:
If the rest of the album holds off on the polished production and incorporates the guitar savvy and unpredictability of “Circuital,” we may be looking at an album of the year candidate, folks.
After all, the decision to switch up production duties from Joe Chiccarelli responsible for the overpolished Evil Urges — to Decemberists helm meister Tucker Martine, seemed like a cause for celebration. And since It Still Moves, many of the band’s best moments came packaged with Carl Broemel’s gargantuan guitar solos.
Alas, there’s little resembling lo-fi production here and extensive soloing of any sort is limited to a mere couple tracks. Circuital is not a return to the Louisville rockers’ roots in spite of MTV.com’s assertions, but rather, highlights a band that has left their extended ethereal lo-fi stylings well in the past. All is far from lost, however. My Morning Jacket’s latest release is not exactly a huge step forward for the group in terms of experimentation, but if one thing is clear, it’s that Circuital was never supposed to be.
Culling from a seemingly bottomless pool of influences, Jim James and company hit their stride here quite nicely showcasing their songwriting chops and demonstrating a level of restraint across ten tracks not heard on a My Morning Jacket record since 2001’s At Dawn.
Opening at nearly six minutes, “Victory Dance” recalls the band’s Z-era, augmented with some Seger-esque vibes and flourishes of horns. It’s an exceptional build-up carried out with utmost precision. In a line of bold and often brilliant album openers for the band, this one takes the cake for the most abstract.
In his prescience, Jim James told us that Circuital would be far more cohesive than Evil Urges, something that is far from apparent in listening to the album’s first half. The title track slowly builds into a beautiful behemoth, taking James’ soaring vocals and a gorgeous keyboard accent before relinquishing to Broemel’s monstrous solo. It’s followed by the sunny and bizarre “The Day Is Coming,” a lightly-bouncing psychedelic ditty equal parts John Lennon and Todd Rundgren. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Jim James definition for cohesion.
There is no climax, as the emphasis on restraint carries throughout Circuital‘s entirety. “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is a sweet acoustic number written before the recording of Evil Urges, accompanied by a pedal steel guitar that is a trademark of My Morning Jacket’s earlier work. Despite the production diminishing the potency of James’ vocals, the track fits in quite nicely, holding down the fort as the slightly fat and ugly cousin of “Golden.”
Yet, it’s not all pretty. “Outta My System” sounds like a track left off the Monsters of Folk collaboration with Bright Eyes and M. Ward — and for good reason. Lyrically, James is at his worst, trading melancholy and mystique with cliches and a strong hint that he picked up a copy of How To: Write Dave Matthews Songs during a Borders out-of-business sale. And while I could envision the enthralling “Holdin’ On To Black Metal” being sampled on the next Kanye West album, on Circuital, it amounts to overindulgence at its most bewildering. The children’s choir, coupled with the horns, and James’ Stax impression simply do not fit in at all within the context of the record. Then there’s “First Light,” which recalls the more guitar-heavy tracks on the back end of Evil Urges — generic and not particularly memorable.
The sappy sucker that is the middle of Circuital really hurts first impressions of the album’s homestretch, which is actually quite good. The down-home power-pop of “You Wanna Freak Out” with its pedal steel guitar is terrific. That’s before delving into the free-floating combination of “Slow Slow Tune” and “Movin Away.” On both of these, James sings in a perfectly natural register, seemingly selecting his words with uncanny precision, keeping them perfectly cryptic. He never forces a thing. It’s incredibly organic and few bands manage to flourish in an autopilot environment as well as My Morning Jacket. In this way, Circuital really does come full circle, drawing from the minimalism of the group’s early work in the record’s final minutes.
James makes it clear that he’s not in the business of making At Dawn reduxes and one can’t really blame him. The band’s talent remains on full display here, boasting an arsenal of strong songwriting and beautiful musical moments held together with extraordinary restraint. No, this is not an album of the year candidate. However, giving the music a chance, MMJ devotees — young and old — will find it difficult to end their love affair with the band. And in this sense, Circuital is ultimately a success. The album length here is just about right and barring the toxic overindulgence that makes up the album’s center, this is another well-executed record by one of America’s finest rock bands.
See this review and many more on the official site for The New Student Union, launching soon!