I suppose it’s kind of difficult for My Morning Jacket fans to be truly pleased by one of their records at this point; six albums in, MMJ have cycled through country-rock, reverb-soaked psychedelia, discordant white-dude reggae, galloping metal, and squealing funk so quickly that really nailing down which My Morning Jacket you like can be tasking in and of itself. We only need for frontman Jim James to start spitting his oft-dippy, abstract lyrics over tight, polished grooves – the most offbeat emcee ever, I’d imagine, even more so than MC Paul Barman – and MMJ will have successfully hit pretty much every beat on the modern pop spectrum.
MMJ’s last record, Evil Urges, wasn’t well-received; and, it’s true, it was an exceptionally strange record, even by MMJ standards, strangely poppy ballads rubbing up against (ill-conceived?) funk-rock workouts creating a jarring, unfocused tune. Even with the largest amount of production polish ever slapped on a My Morning Jacket album, it was certainly not the prettiest album of their career (benchmark album Z almost definitely takes that one home), but it was far from a bust. Still, the fans weren’t pleased, and they must have rejoiced to learn that My Morning Jacket were recording their new album live in a Kentucky gymnasium.
So Circuital has arrived, and with it, a question: have My Morning Jacket returned to glorious form? The answer is a resounding, definitive… I dunno, kinda, I guess.
They certainly haven’t curtailed their genre ping-ponging. There’s nothing here quite as wackadoo as the last album’s schizoid funk curio “Highly Suspicious”, but that doesn’t mean MMJ is anything less than intriguing. Circuital, in fact, begins with its two longest cuts, instead of shunting them off to the easily-avoidable back end of the album. Album opener “Victory Dance” kicks everything off in superbly promising fashion, a thick slab of winking, apocalyptic blues-rock that’s sure to be near-religious in concert. It and the title track are probably two of the most classically My Morning Jacket tunes here, actually; after the title track’s scratchy, staccato guitar stops ringing, things get a little less textbook. “The Day Is Coming” rides a slow, thunderous groove with shaky strings and Beach Boys-y “ba ba ba”s in the background; the gorgeous “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” finally justifies all those old Neil Young comparisons by sounding precisely like an unearthed Harvest castoff. It’s one of James’ best-ever vocals, too, perfectly highlighting (without too much window-dressing) just why this guy’s soaring voice is one of MMJ’s biggest assets.
Circuital is certain to polarize in its midsection, though – the funny, direct “Outta My System” is about exactly what it sounds like, and could be MMJ’s least abstract lyric ever; and fans are already spurning the terrific “Holdin’ On To Black Metal”, a demented song about, again, precisely what you think, except James throws in some hilarious and tongue-in-cheek references to a pool-side party with Lucifer. There’s a funky, fuzzed-out guitar that sounds straight outta Jack White’s garage, some bleating horns in the mix, and, best of all, an overwhelming chorale of background singers that sound like the kids from “Glee” recast as sneering demons. Don’t listen to the hype: “Black Metal” is the perfect left-field song to drop into the epicenter of this record.
Elsewhere, the guys maintain their retro vibe, with “First Light” and “Slow, Slow Tune” both sounding plucked from vinyl-bin obscurity, and pleasantly so; me, I think “Slow, Slow Tune” sounds like something Springsteen would have recorded for the River sessions, so of course I’m sold. And while the piano-led closer “Movin’ Away” is far from a My Morning Jacket classic, it (like “Wonderful”) is a great showcase for Jim James’ vocal gift, a chance for him to show off in a straightforward, unadorned fashion; it doesn’t hurt that around halfway through, the most gorgeous pedal steel notes start to float up from the ether, and the instrument really elevates this thing.
So, no, My Morning Jacket fans – Circuital isn’t quite the “return to form” you’d like it to be. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: these guys have the art of the genre approximation down pat, and they write tasty jams. Circuital doesn’t have a “Highly Suspicious” (still the band’s most curiously polarizing track); what it does have is a set of good-to-terrific tunes, and a few stray moments of transcendence. It doesn’t stack up song-for-song next to, say, Z, but it’s a welcome addition to the canon, and a step in the right direction if you feel like Evil Urges was just an indulgent time-out.
Album grade: B+