In the three years since releasing the divisive album Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket’s future seemed uncertain.
Jim James, lead singer, songwriter, guitarist and one of only two members who has been on every album, has kept busy in the group’s downtime, embarking on a series of side projects including a solo EP (under the moniker Yim Yames) and an album and tour with Monsters of Folk, a super group featuring himself, M. Ward, Mike Mogis and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst.
Last October, however, the band reunited for a five-day residency at famed New York venue Terminal 5 to play a different album from its catalogue in its entirety each night. The trip down memory lane seemingly rejuvenated James’ interest in working on a new My Morning Jacket project. Back in the studio, James and company cranked out Circuital, which tries to emulate the sound of the band’s first three critically acclaimed albums, while also relying on shorter songs with fewer jam sessions than usual.
The result is a grab bag of tracks that vary in strength. There are a few great songs, but weak tracks predominate on Circuital. Listeners get the sense that these songs — though they disappoint on the album — might work in longer form when played live.
Starting with the one-two punch of the slow-burning “Victory Dance” and raucous title track, “Circuital,” My Morning Jacket wastes no time getting into the groove of things.For the first time since 2005’s Z album, the band seems to be having fun playing together in the studio. On the title track, James croons that his band is Heading right back in the same place / That we started out. Unfortunately, My Morning Jacket fails to recreate the magic of its earlier albums after setting the bar so high with the first two songs.
Too many songs are obviously edited down for time purposes and rely more upon James’ inconsistency as a singer-songwriter rather than the full band’s musical talents, namely “The Day Is Coming” and “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” After starting out so fast, the band kills the momentum and spends the rest of the album trying to recapture the frenetic pace.
The faster, louder middle part of the album has its own highs, but nothing really distinguishes itself from the pack. Listeners are justified in feeling frustrated by the fuzzed-out guitar solo in “Holdin’ On To Black Metal,” as it flaunts the band’s incredible musicianship in the middle of an otherwise unnecessary song featuring an all-female backing choir.
The strangely sincere tracks, “You Wanna Freak Out” and “Outta My System” have the makings of great live songs but are just so-so on the album, relying on distorted melodies and some of James’ better lyrics. Unlike My Morning Jacket’s past albums, repeated listens to particular songs do not reveal nuances and previously unnoticed intricacies. Upon first listen, these two songs stand out, but only get less and less remarkable with each subsequent listen.
Album closers “Slow Slow Tune” and “Movin’ Away” are two more slow grooves. While the latter ends the album on a delicate and heartfelt note with a beautifully downtrodden piano ballad, the former essentially functions as a lullaby, almost boring listeners to sleep. Pairing the tracks at the end leads to an anticlimactic finish, especially when compared to the album’s explosive introduction.
My Morning Jacket thrives playing songs in live performances where they make adjustments and lengthen their songs with epic jam sessions. Old fans should look forward to hearing how the band plays these new songs live, while prospective fans should look back at the band’s stellar catalogue rather than this shaky release.