It’s been three years since My Morning Jacket released a new album, yet MMJ’s profile has never been higher. That’s because the Kentucky-bred quintet, led by singer/guitarist Jim James and also including guitarist Carl Broemel, bassist “Two-Tone” Tommy, keyboardist Bo Koster and drummer Patrick Hallahan, solidified its already strong reputation as a well-respected touring act during that time while also maintaining its good standing with critics. As such, there are high hopes for Circuital (ATO Records), the band’s sixth studio effort and the follow-up to 2008’s Evil Urges.
Circuital opens with the low rumble of “Victory Dance,” which sets an ominous tone with its healthy dose of reverb slathered all over the guitars. It’s like the chum line before a sharking expedition, and the feeling grows more intense until the chaotic crescendo, which is like seeing the first fin pop out of the water. And just as your ears perk up, the album’s title track swings the mood back into a much different upbeat direction. This song has an infectious bit of guitar noodling at its start, then there’s a catchy piano riff under the verses before the guitar intro returns — exactly what you might expect from a band comfortable with its eclectic style.
James has always been a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type of songwriter. One moment he’s reflecting on his growth as a man in the most tender way (“Outta My System”), then he’s singing in his falsetto voice about the virtues of a dark-arts lifestyle while “catching waves on Lucifer’s beach” (“Holdin on to Black Metal”). He certainly makes a compelling argument for both not only in the lyrical content but also with his vocals. “Outta My System” sounds like a Brian Wilson song performed by The Who, while “Holdin on to Black Metal” is basically a funk track (with its punchy horn blasts and thumping bass) that might have been written by late metal god Ronnie James Dio.
The placement of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” as the fourth track is interesting. The song is essentially James with an acoustic guitar and some backing help, and he sings positively in a moment of reflection. This pretty and charming tune might have been better suited as the album’s swan song rather than marking the start of the second third. As it is, the end of Circuital takes a drastic turn to the slower side with the aptly titled “Slow Slow Tune” followed by the melancholy “Movin Away.”
As a whole, Circuital fits nicely in the My Morning Jacket catalog. It is adventurous enough to be a step forward for the band, and it also packs in enough of MMJ’s signature elements to appeal to hard-core fans. These songs should also fit nicely into My Morning Jacket’s live set, adding another dimension to a band that has almost always, especially in a concert setting, traveled a circuitous and satisfying musical path.
— By Mike Madden