“Holdin’ On To Black Metal”
May 31, 2011 - ATO
Having reached its apparent threshold on 2003’s It Still Moves, the sweetly mournful ruralism of My Morning Jacket’s origins has spent the better part of the last half-decade fighting a dying battle of resistance. It’s varied inversely with a progressive eclecticism that duplicitously attained either enlightened highs or objectionable lows on 2008’s Evil Urges, depending on who’s counting. With longtime stalwarts having been afforded plenty of time to prepare, it’s on sixth album Circuital that these impulses win out completely. Traipsing effortlessly through stylistic tributes and chameleonic vocal exercises, My Morning Jacket no longer sound like a band of curious adventurers perpetually at odds with their former selves, and consequently deliver an album that plays like a sort of kid-in-a-candy-shop, take-a-little-of-everything thrill ride. Predictably, results vary.
In its finer moments, Circuital runs an impressive gamut of homages, touching tastefully on traditional R&B (“Slow Slow Tune”), twisted orchestral pop (“The Day Is Coming”), and wacky ’70s gospel funk (“Holdin’ On To Black Metal”). Even when old acoustic impulses take hold, they lead the group into unfamiliar territory; instead of plundering the grungy dives of Southern rock, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” plaintively summons the lush, pastoral soundscapes of early-’70s AM radio, and the seven-minute title track fuses backwoods twang and brash experimentalism such to do Wilco proud. Despite the abrupt genre hopping, Circuital manages to maintain a surprising consistency, compensating for what it lacks in musical cohesion with an underlying sense of exploratory freedom that runs throughout. When it stumbles, it does so on the basis of mismatches between music and voice—often, instances of the band trying to rein singer Jim James into a vocal approach slightly outside his capacity.
One of modern indie rock’s most distinct voices (both Band Of Horses and Fleet Foxes owe him at least a modest debt of gratitude), James is unnaturally adaptable; he can pull off just about anything, but rarely inconspicuously. His earnest timbre was perfect counterpoint to the early MMJ’s rustic ruggedness, but here he too often sounds to be forcing something which is actively pulling the other way. As a result, James ends up inadvertently (and somewhat strangely) channeling an assortment of British pop singers from George Harrison to Sell Out-era Roger Daltrey to the Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean. Two songs in particular bring to mind pre-Tommy Who: opener “Victory Dance,” which succeeds with a wallop, and coming-of-age novelty “Outta My System,” which not only flops with one, but also makes a good case against MMJ’s continued jam band fraternizing—its dopey lyrics sound like they could have been penned by Phish’s Mike Gordon. Crammed awkwardly into the record’s middle, it nonetheless fails at subduing Circuital’s restless sense of expedition—one which finds its creators frequently lost but, ultimately, found.