As My Morning Jacket prepared to record "Holdin' on to Black Metal," the wildest track on their new album, Circuital (out this spring), frontman Jim James set the scene for his bandmates: "'I want it to sound like we're Cuban or Cambodian kids, and we're wearing berets and we're walking through an alley and we stumble upon this band, and it explodes into this crazy sing-along,'" keyboardist Bo Koster recalls with a laugh. The rest of the band had no idea what James was talking about but launched into the song anyway — the loose, funky first take is on the album. "This is the most live record we've ever done," says James.
After cutting 2008's eclectic Evil Urges with the clock ticking in a pricey Manhattan studio, MMJ returned to their native Louisville, Kentucky, to record in a more informal setting: They turned the gymnasium of a local church into a makeshift studio, setting up in a circle (one of the reasons for the album title), and recorded the basic tracks live to 24-track tape, sometimes along with the sound of passing cars and chirping birds. James worked on some vocal tracks later, alone at his house, and they also overdubbed horns, strings and backing vocals. "Black Metal," for instance, is augmented by massed female voices and what sounds like wah-wah-ed horns — a combo that lands the song somewhere between "Superfly" and "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)."
This article appears in the March 17, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the online archive March 4.
The setting was a throwback to the band's first three albums, which were recorded in a Kentucky grain silo — but the music is hardly a return to roots. With trippy keyboards, twisted pop hooks and fuzzed-out guitar attacks, Circuital feels like the culmination of the sonic adventures the band began with 2005's Z — while also capturing the power and dynamics that have made MMJ one of the greatest live bands of their generation. "This record feels like a couple of steps forward of what we'd been doing in terms of overall sound," says guitarist Carl Broemel, who made a point of mostly improvising his jaggedly powerful solos on the new record, rather than composing them as usual. The idea throughout was to capture a "beginner's mind" feel — a Zen concept so dear to James' heart that his Monsters of Folk bandmate Conor Oberst wrote a song by that title for Bright Eyes' new album and partially dedicated it to the Jacket leader.
While Evil Urges had a mixtape vibe, moving between AM Gold ballads, Prince-like funk and full-on country (James saw it as a "video game" with different boards), Circuital is about 10 minutes shorter and feels more stylistically consistent. Even tracks as disparate as the slow-building, spooky opener, "Victory Dance" (with drummer Patrick Hallahan working his high-hat with Neil Peart-like sleekness) and the gorgeous ballad "Wonderful" are what James calls "kindred souls," adding, "We want people to have almost the exact opposite experience they had last time. I definitely had some goals of wanting to make this one warmer and somehow more contained and more concise of a statement."
The album's least concise moment is the title track, which weighs in at more than seven minutes, beginning with a circular guitar riff over a drum-machine beat, before blasting into multiple sections that came together one day during a jam in James' basement.
Some of the first songs written for the disc, including "Wonderful" and the power-poppy "Out of My System," were originally intended to be played by Muppets: An exec recruited My Morning Jacket to record music for a new version of the Electric Mayhem band (the one with Animal on drums), promising a Gorillaz-style tour where MMJ would play behind a curtain while Muppet holograms bashed away onstage. The psyched band began writing and demo'ing, but the exec got fired and the project disappeared. (In any case, the lyrics of "Out of My System" — "They told me not to smoke drugs, but I didn't listen" — probably wouldn't have worked out.)
James also got a call to write a couple of songs for Jason Segel's new Muppet movie, but they didn't use those either. "So now, twice, Muppet glory has been within my grasp," says James. "It's pretty heartbreaking, but it did propel us just to kick into high gear and finish our own record."