“I can see potential/Speaking through you/Speaking to you/ From all of heaven’s possibility,” My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James sings at the opening of his band’s sixth album. He sounds like a hippie shaman, but the track is more Radiohead than the Doors: a sleek, low-end bass whir and tensely driving cymbal hits melt into hypnotic waves of ambient sound and ghostly backing vocals; the song builds ominously, then speeds headlong until climaxing in chaos and distortion. It’s a trippy vision of heaven, and a song that sums up what MMJ do best: deliver new-fangled packages for old-fangled transcendence.
Over the past decade, the Kentucky quintet have been on an ambitious, boundary-melting mission. The last two discs – 2005’s Z and 2008’s Evil Urges – ping-ponged between misty-mountain guitar explorations and Seventies funk fantasias, kinky reggae and unwinking metal, while still delivering Southern-tinged jams that felt as comfy as a crusty college futon. Recorded in a Louisville church gymnasium, Circuital is just as adventurous, yet more organic and focused; when James sings, “Play it smart, soul intact/How you react is what you’ll get back,” against lovely circular guitar shimmer on “You Wanna Freak Out,” he’s like the beard-rock version of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights, showing the boys how to relax and channel their inner jam.
They sure listened: “First Light” is a Seventies Stones boogie with the apocalypse sucked out and replaced with lyrics about spiritual satisfaction; the title track opens with Morse- code guitar noodling and unfolds into smiling, open-road strumming that recalls Wilco at their loosest; “The Day Is Coming” is space rock with a soul heartbeat, somewhere between the Delfonics and the Flaming Lips. All this warm, elegiac music fits lyrics that marinate in Zen tranquility – “I will never grow older/At least not in my mind,” James sings on “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).”
So much bliss could get pie-eyed pious, but Circuital has a funny bone, too. “Outta My System” is about a reformed burnout car thief looking back happily on his outlaw days from the safety of marriage and stability. And then there’s “Holdin on to Black Metal,” probably the gnarliest thing these guys have done. Over a fuzz-toned psychedelic funk groove, sulfurous guitars and wah-wah horn flares, James brags about “catchin’ waves on Lucifer’s beach,” as switchblade-wielding girl singers get his back. “Black Metal” is a stoned soul picnic in the heavy-metal parking lot, a brilliant addition to the canon of awesome songs about the power of the devil’s noise. It’s also another classic form Jimmy’s made his own.
Listen to “Circuital”: