My Morning Jacket’s reputation is largely built upon the band’s transcendent live performances and, as is often the case with bands suffering from this affliction, Jim James and company’s phenomenal live shows overshadow a catalogue of underappreciated studio work. Since their 1999 debut The Tennessee Fire, the band has released album after album full of songs that are not only great jumping-off points for wild improvisation in a live setting, but which also stand on their own. Their sixth studio album, Circuital, is no different.
Recorded in a converted gymnasium in a Louisville church, Circuital is intended to be a return to the band’s roots and was recorded live with the entire band playing in a circle (circle, Circuital, get it?). The end result of this set up is the band stocking its cabinet full of songs that are ripe of improvisation, while crafting an album full of everything from classic spaced-out jams to funk, muddy guitar-driven rock, and beautiful acoustic compositions. And, of course, James’ soaring falsetto is ever-present, somehow finding a way to mesh with every new musical route his band takes and weaving tales of a coming-of-age with an eye toward the past.
Victory Dance – a dark, solemn, and slow-building jam that kicks off Circuital – would fit well into MMJ’s live set as an opener, entrancing listeners with noodling guitars and a plodding bass line, while slowly building momentum until the audience is in a frenzy and ready for anything the band will give them. James’ lyrics are captivating, speaking of both self-doubt and doubt in the power the faith, as well as regret:
Should I close my eyes and prophesize, hoping maybe someday it comes?
Should I wet the ground with my own tears, crying over what’s been done?
Should I lift the dirt and plant the seed, even though I’ve never grown?
The tone of the song is buoyed by a sense of determination, however, as the band’s pace quickens and James proclaims the power of his own “good work.”
Victory Dance spills into the album’s title track and first single (released in exchange for the listener’s email address), with its Steve Miller-esque riff that intertwines with a Phishy piano line to create a spaced-out seven minute jam that will no doubt become even longer once the band gets hold of it on stage. James’ vocals continue to foster the album’s central themes about growing older and wiser, but with a respect for past experiences (“I am older day-by-day…Still going back to my childhood way.”)
The Day Is Coming is classic My Morning Jacket – an airy slow jam with angelic backing vocals and the feel of Z-era My Morning Jacket. James then dabbles in singer-songwriter mode, channeling his inner James Taylor on Wonderful (The Way I Feel).
Outta My System and Holdin’ Onto Black Metal – although both thematically consistent with the rest of Circuital – sound somewhat out of place, but for different reasons. Outta My System, with its upbeat tempo and catchy chorus that will endear it to a live audience, is undermined by overtly tongue-in-cheek lyrics (“They told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen. Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison.”). Holdin’ Onto Black Metal has the feel of Shakedown Street-era Grateful Dead and, although James’ falsetto mixes well with the song’s disco feel, it sounds like nothing else on Circuital and sticks out like a sore thumb.
James and guitarist Carl Broemel shine on First Light, a guitar fuzzfest that would make Dan Auerbach proud. You Wanna Freak Out sounds equal parts rally cry and therapy session and ends with more murky guitars. The album closes with two softer songs – Slow Slow Tune and Movin’ Away – that provide a good denouement for Circuital, an album that needs a cooling down period after the wide range of sounds it offers.
With Circuital, My Morning Jacket crafted their shortest record yet (it clocks in at 45 minutes, while their first five albums averaged just under an hour), but one which is not lacking in the band’s distinct sound and a strong thematic current throughout. Whether these songs are truly part of the MMJ lexicon remains to be seen, as the real test will come in a live setting, when the band can flesh out each song and help them to reach their full potential.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.