Let's get this out of the way— We all know that Jim James’s voice is 100% certified bad ass. The man can sing anything, anything at all, and somewhere deep inside, you WILL like it. Even haters of the band’s 2008 record Evil Urges, of which I am not one, couldn’t deny that no matter how strange, or just plain silly, the songs got, at least you could take comfort in the ghostly beauty of that voice.
On that album, instead of just hinting at (or if you prefer, half-assing) the child-like humor that many of My Morning Jacket’s previous songs cautiously flirted with, the band whole heartedly embraced the funny, and went as far as they could possibly go with it. It felt liberating even as a listener, so I can’t imagine what it was like for the band to finally get that off their chest. And that may be why Circuital, despite it being their sixth full length album, feels like a record that was made by a band caught squarely in the middle of a sophomore slump.
Opening the record with a blast of horns that comes straight out of Braveheart, it’s hard to tell if James intended for you for you to laugh, cry, or cringe. And that opening track, “Victory Dance,” isn’t even a bad song; it’s just ill placed and slightly ill conceived. Look, I get it. It’s freaking awesome being a rock star and I love all the excesses that the stadium/ass rockers laid down on vinyl for later generations to enjoy. But if you’re not going to fully commit to being that band then why bother? Imagine if The Darkness had tried to take themselves at ALL seriously. They would have been an utter failure. Instead they spandexed up, broke out the foam rubber alien tentacles, and went for it. I’m not saying MMJ needs to necessarily go down this path, but when I hear those horns live, I’m going to, at the very least, expect the members of the band to be adorned in kilts and swinging their battle axes.
So what about the rest of the album? Well, just like every other My Morning Jacket record, it’s got its highs, which are really high, as well as its lows, which are, well, low. The track “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” wraps James’s voice in blanket of strings and only succeeds because, just like on Evil Urges the band fully commits to it. In fact, any time the band fully commits on Circuital, something good happens. You may loath the kung-fu spaghetti western theme song that is “Holding On to Black Metal” out loud, but on the inside, that schoolgirl chorus will just play over and over until you find some way to make it stop.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough moments on Circuital where the band goes all in, and the result are songs like “The Day Is Coming,” “First Light,” and the really?-ness that is “Outta My System”. All three of the songs follow the jammy/spacey blueprint that the band laid out on albums like Z and It Still Moves, and just like on those albums the songs never quite connect or feel meaningful in any way. It’s been said that the real My Morning Jacket finally shows itself live on the stage, and I can see where these songs could work in that context, but on record they simply fall flat.
Again, it’s not that these songs are bad; it’s just that if I’m being honest, nothing that the band has ever done before Evil Urges really made me a fan. And while they have some fantastic songs (“Wordless Chorus” anyone? Holy crap!), they are peppered sporadically throughout the band’s 6-album (7 counting the live album Okonokos) career. If you look at that in the context of their entire catalog, it becomes clear that with just a little bit of focus, they could make one truly great album instead of a bunch of records with a handful of high points, and Evil Urges is the closest they have come.
If it sounds like I’m being harsh, I don’t mean to be. At the end of the day, the band will always have that voice and therefore will always seem to possess some magic. That statement is no slight on the other band members. In fact, one of the best moments on Circuital comes in the track “Slow Slow Tune” and doesn’t involve Jim James. As the words drop out, they give way to a giant wall of echoplexed guitars that satisfies on every level. It’s big, spacey, Floydian even, and it may be one of the best moments I’ve ever heard from the band.
If there were a few more tracks like it, I’d be seeing this record in a whole different light. It’s only one track though, and what we’re left with is a handful of songs that look more to the past than the future of My Morning Jacket. So while I’ll pretty much listen to anything these guys put out from now on based solely upon my enjoyment of Evil Urges, I just wish that Circuital were more of that album than everything that came before it.