MMJ man goes it alone with an eclectic, intricate LP…
Hypnotic, psychedelic, soulful and ragged, My Morning Jacket are one of the most distinctive bands to come out of the American rock underground in the past decade. Much of that is down to frontman Jim James, who has a gorgeous but flexible voice and writes tunes that veer from country to space rock to reggae while retaining MMJ’s absorbing, reverberating sonic palate. Although the band aren’t the most productive around – 2011’s Circuital was only their second album since 2005’s excellent Z –James has spent the past four years quietly beavering away on his own solo project. The result is a lovingly recorded scrap of splendour and beauty that takes some of the more interesting elements of MMJ and runs with them in a series of unexpected directions. ‘I wanted it to sound like the past of the future,’ James told Uncut, ‘Like you are in the year 4037 and you found this record, which was made in the year 3078.’
It begins, tellingly, with a pseudo-retro crackle of vinyl and a surreptitious, almost modest, drum roll. The brilliant “State of The Art (A.E.I.O.U)” slowly builds from a simple piano-and-voice ballad into a claustrophobic funk work-out reminiscent of Spiritualized or 1970s Brian Eno (British influences infiltrate Regions Of Light… despite MMJ being the most American of bands). MMJ are noted for their swirling layers of sound and there are layers here too, but more precise, more considered, placed by an almost visible single hand rather than an opaque ten-legged sound machine lost deep inside the moment.
As James adds fresh instruments with each verse, “State of The Art” grows ever more complex but on top of all is James’s voice. This is a wise move: his vocals can get buried in the maelstrom of MMJ but here they remain clean and clear, beautifully illustrating “Know Til Now”, which fuses loops and keyboards to a song with a coda like an old jazzy acetate. It’s like a Tom Waits tune that has been scrubbed and softened while remaining deliciously oddball, with a wonderful, tangible, texture. The record has a unified atmosphere, the result of James producing the album himself, recording at home and playing almost every instrument.
“Know Til Now” is one of four songs inspired by God’s Man, a graphic novel by Lynd Ward from 1929 that uses wordless wood engravings. The book is both about love and a Faustian pact, and it is the former, ‘more literal’, part with which James identified when he read it in 2008, shortly after he injured himself falling off the stage – the protagonist of the book hurts himself falling down a cliff. “Dear One”, with squelching bass and 80s drums, is a euphoric love song that reflects the book’s central affair as does the following “A New Life”, which provides the best showcase of James’s voice, as confident and dramatic as a young Brett Anderson on a stunning song that marries a Bowie-style ballad with a Johnny Cash backbeat, sprinkled with MMJ pyrotechnics.
Intricate, delicate instrumental “Exploding” offers a bridge into the second half of the album, which begins with a twitter of birdsong and a cascading cherry blossom of keyboards on the regretful, religion-referencing “Of The Mother Again”. Next is “Actress”, a bittersweet lament that typifies the album’s adventurous spirit, combining austere strings with slinky beats and domineering vocals. From there, it’s back to God’s Man and “All Is Forgiven”, a sinister, sonorous theme for the novel’s devil-like figure. Saturated by organ and heavy metal chords, it’s the first piece James wrote inspired by the book and it hangs ominously in the dead air. Perhaps mindful of offering a chirpier denouement, the album closes with the Beatles-esque “God’s Love To Deliver”, in which James harmonises with himself over simple strumming, almost gets lost in a stew of samples, before ending with a buzz and a hum that lingers in the ear long after this strange, beautiful album has played its final note.
What did you do here that you couldn’t do with MMJ?
Well, it’s not a matter of what I could or could not do because MMJ is a very free place, it was rather that this was a chance for me to spread my wings and enjoy playing instruments I don’t normally play in MMJ, but still enjoy a great deal. It also was a chance for me to make a record on my own terms and in my own time, by myself at home.
What was the influence of God’s Man on the album?
I began the album as a score to God’s Man. I feel I have never compromised my soul to the devil so I feel good about that, but there were some more literal parts to the story – injury, love blossoming out of despair, recovery – that I identified with and had a super surreal déjà-vu impact on me. I felt I knew the book from a former life back when it came out.
The album has terrific texture, does that come from the production process?
Production and soundscape are very important to me. Gear choices and then deciding where things fall along the space-time continuum – these are very important. I’m just as interested in mic-ing and fucking with the piano as I am in simply playing it.
INTERVIEW: PETER WATTS
Photo credit Jo McCaughey