This album is the official solo debut of a rock star who really doesn’t need to make solo records. The singer-guitarist and main songwriter of My Morning Jacket, Jim James leads one of the most successful and consistently exciting bands in modern rock, a Southern Led Zeppelin with the futurist nerve of Radiohead. James has produced or co-produced most of his group’s records while racking up sublime collaborations on the side, including the superband Monsters of Folk and vocal work with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. How much more liberty and license could James enjoy on his own that he doesn’t get already?
Here is his strange, devout, ultimately beguiling answer. Written and performed almost entirely by James, Regions of Light and Sound of God is nine flamboyantly spiritual songs wrapped in creamy electronics and set to funk and hip-hop beats. James’ whispery tenor and trademark bolts of falsetto fly through the same mountaintop echo he favors with My Morning Jacket but without that band’s earthy counterweight. It takes a while to get used to the enigmatic restraint and lack of heavy-rock action. The long slow-motion intro to the first track, “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.),” is more shadows than music, James’ tremulous croon and ghostly saloon piano hanging in inky reverb.
At the same time, James writes like a soul out of control, in jumbled, repetitive bursts of childlike need and near-babbling wonder. “Dear One” and “Of the Mother Again” are tongue-tied awe coated in digital frost. “A New Life” is pure obsession: “I want a new life,” James sings over and over (“With you,” he adds at one point for clarity). The song is one of the album’s rare straight-pop treats, with a throatykeyboard line that evokes Del Shannon’s 1961 hit “Runaway.” Still, it’s hard not to wish the rest of My Morning Jacket were around to offset James’ spacey insistence with some muscular sense and big-riff* sunshine.
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But once you get over what isn’t here, Regions of Light and Sound of God is an eccentric, gently compelling pleasure: George Harrison’s Seventies classic-rock spiritualism reborn in the laptop age with a strong hint of the Roots in the backbeat. (James’ old friend Dave Givan adds live drums.) “Actress” is about worshipping false idols, with a hint of betrayal close to home. It is also eerie, irresistible bedroom-jam R&B, as if James had written it in 1975 for Earth, Wind and Fire. “God’s Love to Deliver” ends the album with more ancient flair – James singing like a choir of monks, in layered exchanges across a cathedral floor. There is a strong melody in there, too. The lyrics read like a stumbling to relief (“Negating all evil, we had found the Lord in our hearts reborn”). The hook makes them sound like songwriting.
“I believe in a heightened emotion,” James declares in “Actress.” It is a blunt statement of the obvious. Regions of Light and Sound of God is all heated feelings and extravagant gestures. It is also what solo albums are for: the leader of a great band out on a limb, in rapt self-examination, getting weird and interesting.