My Morning Jacket: Circuital

My Morning Jacket
Rating: ★★★★☆

“Should I wet the ground with my own tears, crying over what’s been done?” Jim James asks on “Victory Dance,” the first song on My Morning Jacket’s sixth studio album, Circuital. Many fans may read that as a veiled comment on 2008’s Evil Urges, an over-experimental record that indulged questionable excursions into lite funk and Princely r&b. Especially following the career high of 2005’s Z, which many regard as a high point akin to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Kid A, Evil Urges sounded like a considerable step down—or perhaps a stumble down.

Circuital sounds like a reaction to the extravagances of its predecessor. My Morning Jacket tamper their more evil urges and settle back into being a solid rock band. Rather than experimental, these songs are simply and casually eccentric: charmingly weird avenues that all lead circuitously (or circuitally?) back to classic rock. The band sounds most confident and commanding in this setting. For all its worries about the past and the future, “Victory Dance” demands to be heard with about 80,000 other fans at an outdoor festival and with the setting sun as a backdrop.

Read our cover story on the making of Circuital

Circuital may be relatively conservative in the Jacket canon, but it’s certainly not timid or tentative. The title track is a winding road-trip anthem that projects to the rafters at other venue, with a terrifically scribbly guitar solo and heraldic acoustic riffs practically quoted from The Who. Circuital peaks on its second half, as My Morning Jacket coverts the cast of “Glee” to Satanism on “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” (a song that lives up to its title). “First Light” bristles with strident guitars and prickly synths, until the horn section comes in like a twist ending.

It’s difficult to follow up that pair of songs, but like the best My Morning Jacket albums, Circuital ends not with a triumphal jam, but with a quieter moment—namely, the C&W fade-out of “Movin’ Away,” which features one of James’ best and most precarious vocals. Always a better singer than songwriter, he maintains an odd poise through these songs, as if he’s inherited the mantle of southern eccentric from Michael Stipe. Instead of mumbling, though, he reverbs.

At his most dynamic—the opening and closing tracks in particular—he’s lyrically evasive, loathe to betray his songs’ meanings too easily. That makes “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” a particularly egregious low point, as it veers dangerously close to the acoustic sentiment of a romcom montage.

However, “Outta My System,” a tale of doing drugs and raising hell, sounds all the more jarring for being so direct, and the song’s buoyant melody makes such confessional self-examination almost celebratory: “They told me not to smoke drugs, but I didn’t listen,” James sings. “Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison.”

It’s a fond reminiscence of a man who has lived long enough to look back on more narcotically and musically riotous days and learn from those experiences. On an album so deeply concerned with the past, the song sounds like a victory dance.