A Re-Examination of Circuital or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Morning Jacket
Recently, a friend of mine challenged my claim that Circuital, the new album from My Morning Jacket, was just okay. I told him that there were only a few good songs, that it seemed slight, and that I was cherry-picking the best songs onto my iPod and simply listening to those. His simple response: “You’re nuts”. So, in fairness to his retaliation and in deference to my perceived notions, I have given the album countless spins over the past few days in search of a greater meaning and purpose from the band. What was I missing and what had I overlooked? Turns out it was quite a lot.
In the interests of disclosure, I am a huge fan of My Morning Jacket; I own all their albums, have seen them live eight or nine times, and have raved about them in these pages before (https://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/my-morning-jacket-live-at). I have converted countless others to the band as well, but my word of mouth buildup is no longer needed. Over the last five years, they’ve gotten bigger and bigger, moving quickly from the rock clubs where I first fell under their spell to bigger theatres to now sports arenas and festival headliners. Their music can be heard in the background of film scenes, leading up to sporting events, and like I witnessed the other day emanating from the speakers of an old Volvo where a local Dad chilling with the windows down, could be seen rocking out to “One Big Holiday”. Indeed, it’s the conundrum facing all rock fans: How to still enjoy and get the most out of your favorite band when they seem to be flying off the radar and into the stratosphere of big-time America. Now, of course unlike many other bands whose names I won’t disclose but Jim James makes clear with this money quote in a recent chat with Rolling Stone: “I don’t want to write a song about my sex parts being on fire, just to have a huge hit audience.” (Hello Followill clan), My Morning Jacket’s members aren’t exactly “selling out” so to speak. Still, there were a couple signs that kept me nervous about future moves and questioning whether the band was in it for the long haul. Jim or Yim which you can also call him, spent a lot of time with Monsters of Folk, which coupled with the nom de plume, got me thinking that maybe he was putting the rock aside for a more measured and stately approach. Furthermore, like many other fans, the band’s previous effort, Evil Urges, left me feeling cold with some of its more experimental phases and lyrics that I felt were somewhat half-heartedly applied. No matter, I thought, the band still slayed live on that tour, serving up enough power to keep small cities running, and I was always there, fist-pumping away and singing along at the top of my lungs. If new fans were jumping on board, oblivious to the earlier history and musical leanings, then so be it. I was making room and trying to not let my own personal hang-ups with some of the music get in the way.
So, last month I find myself getting to know Circuital on a lengthy road trip across the hot, muggy South on my way to Wakarusa, where Jim (Yim) James (Yames) and Company would be holding court on a Friday night as one of the Festival headliners. As my friend and I crossed the miles with the disc spinning a couple of times throughout, the music seemed pretty good to me. There was some dubious material, “Holdin on to Black Metal” being the main offender, but I had heard that earlier as one of the preview tracks and was suitably prepared. “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” sounded a little too close to “Golden” for my comfort level and “Outta My System” seemed a little too cute for my rock sensibilities, but all in all I found it a solid affair. As per usual, the band’s Festival set was life-affirming and I went home happy and excited and stoked, anticipating Circuital to be my soundtrack to the summer.
But as mentioned earlier, the album fell by the wayside for the next few weeks. Even the vinyl version which greeted me upon my return home went largely unspinned. I was digitally subsisting on my favorite tunes, predominantly, the one-two opening punch of “Victory Dance” and the title track. Then, last weekend, that glowing text from my friend showed up in my inbox, full of praise and general satisfaction both for the album and for the band. I shrugged my shoulders, responded with an “Eh, whatever” and went back to doing whatever it was that I was doing. But I was a bit disturbed by my general nonchalance and casual blasé attitude towards the whole affair. My Morning Jacket’s music has been a huge part of my life for the past decade. It has been there through career changes, relocations, and relationships; always picking me up, soothing my worried mind, or serving as a jumpstart to get motivated. A concert of theirs even served as a landmark event in the courtship of a girlfriend who I’m now ecstatic to call my wife. A few of their songs even graced the reception at our wedding last year. I had to go back and give proper attention to Circuital and see exactly what it was the guys were looking to create in that Louisville church gymnasium they turned into a recording studio.
To paraphrase James, I got all worked up over nothing. What sounded shallow and precarious upon the first few listens gleamed with profundity and depth the next few times around. Words tended to make more sense, the musical arrangements crackled with a lot of intensity underneath, and patterns started to emerge. There’s some heady stuff going on: Biblical prophecy (“Power, hey, do you know how it works/Hey, do you know that the meek shall inherit the earth”), references to “Satan’s jeweled crown” and “Christ’s hollow cup”, claims of God radiating the soul, and further odes to spiritual fulfillment: (“Been holding out, searching for something/Something to carry me over the sunset/To dawn’s early light”). There is also a clever wink to the haters who gathered in full force after Evil Urges in “You Wanna Freak Out”, where James acknowledges his band’s often shaky status with the cool-kid critics and bloggers, and even a inspirational charge to the disinterested in “The Day is Coming”. And as evidenced by the two notorious offenders of the album, “Black Metal” and “Out of My System”, yes bands are allowed to have some fun too, although I still may not be completely sold on these two reflections of fun. James’ personal life has also taken a positive turn in the past few years as he returned home to Louisville and fell in love. Singing of these newfound pleasures in the album-closing “Movin’ Away”, I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s period of contentment, circa Nashville Skyline and New Morning. Some dismissed those albums as being below Bob standards then too, unfairly leveling accusations that his personal bliss had softened the tones. However, when you hear Bob declare that “(L)ife’s pleasures be few/The only one I know/Is when I’m alone with you” or James belt out: “I hope your heart will beat where my home is”, one needs not worry about sentimentality or schmaltz and instead just appreciate the genuine earnestness and heartfelt emotion being brought to the proceedings. I’m at that point in my life when many of my friends are having babies. I imagine the anxieties and expectations that surely accompany parenthood are in sync with the collage of feelings expressed on Circuital. The old is left behind and the new sets in. And although I doubt he was referring to fatherhood in this case, when James closes “Movin’ Away” with the refrain of “A new life to create”, I can think of no greater gift to bestow upon parents-to-be than a copy of this album.
In another recent interview with Relix, James quelled some of the doubts I had about the band’s slow build toward commercial success: “I can only write the songs that I write and we can only play them the way we play them.” This is a simple declaration to be sure, and a thought that is probably on the minds of many musicians. But it leads to the larger point that whatever happens with the music is open to interpretation. Hopefully it will get the attention and nurturing it deserves, especially by fans and longtime listeners. One of my favorite bands hasn’t gone anywhere; rather they were just demanding a closer inspection. Seeing that I pride myself on actually getting to “know” my music, this revelation greatly disturbed me and I went from chiding the band to chiding myself. How did I miss these things initially? Why was I quick to dismiss the album? Am I becoming one of those…you know…hipster type, “I immediately hate it” kinds of music snob? Who knows, but the point is My Morning Jacket is outstanding and hopefully will be for a long, long time. It’s also okay to critique. Nobody needs to be a blind follower of a particular act, team, faith, or creed. We all know what can happen then. But, music, like everything else needs to be judged fairly and thanks to last weekend’s text, I got my act together.