Album Review: My Morning Jacket - Circuital

by Jim McGuinn

At some point last year, My Morning Jacket leader Jim James sat down and listened to a CD called Siamese Soul, Thai Pop Spectacular vol 2, 1960s-80s. From a song in a foreign tongue that translates in English to "Advice Column for Love Troubles," James knicked the garage-y guitar riff and background shouts that would morph into My Morning Jacket's "Holding On to Black Metal," the first single from Circuital, the 6th album from the Louisville quintet, and first since 2008's Evil Urges. That James was inspired by Thai garage rock is becoming less surprising as he seems intent on re-inventing My Morning Jacket with each release, as the band's original reverb-laden Americana-meets-Neil Young vibe has itself influenced a score of artists with similar agendas — from Band of Horses to Fleet Foxes, to even Bon Iver.

After a year that saw James guest on a Roots album, cut an EP of George Harrison covers, and make and album and tour with pals M. Ward and Conor Oberst as Monsters of Folk, My Morning Jacket convened in the gymnasium of a church in their hometown of Louisville in late 2010 to make what would quickly be termed in the press a 'back to basics' album after some of the questionable experiments of Evil Urges (particularly the Southern rock meets Prince funk of "Highly Suspicious").

Circuital opener "Victory Dance" sets an impressive tone, building with tension and release from a dark whisper to a cacophonous conclusion. The title song shifts gears several times, from a single note guitar pluck to furious strumming that almost recalls the Who, while James sings of "spinning out gradually / going nowhere / I am older / but still going back for my childhood way." That mid-30s circle of life questioning is rampant through the album — even with "Black Metal" wanting "refills of Lucifer's cup" but "it don't belong in a grown up." James recently named The Muppets as one of his biggest influences, and a playful sense of humor shines strong on the drug dealing car thief-turned married and settled down narrator in "Outta My System" ("They told me not to do drugs, but I didn't listen / never thought I'd get caught and wind up in prison / guess I just had to get it outta my system"), while the band chugs out a Beach Boys surf rocker.

The press were looking for MMJ to return to their mythical early roots, but maybe there are no more 'roots' for MMJ to go back to. It's like expecting Radiohead to make The Bends again — it's just not going to happen. Though, like Radiohead and the glimpses of pop that show up on even their most experimental releases, Circuital takes elements of the 'classic' MMJ sound that was honed on 2003's It Still Moves and morphs it into something new, as James sounds wiser for his musical and life travels, especially on the ballad "Wonderful" and the elegiac closers "Slow Slow Tune" and "Movin' Away" that bring the listener back around and coast into home. It's the end of a journey, not just thru My Morning Jacket's past, but their present and perhaps future as well. With a detour to Thailand along the way.