My Morning Jacket
By David M. Goldstein | 6 June 2011
Eleven years removed from The Tennessee Fire (1999), My Morning Jacket now find themselves in that rarified level of rock fan strata usually associated with the likes of Wilco (and, uh…Wilco). They’re equally respected by “hipsters” and “fans of the jambands,” by self-styled PBR aficionados and militant homebrewers alike. They helped redefine white-boy dreadlock fest Bonnarroo by leading it away from such signifiers and overshadowing a Radiohead show through sheer bombastic endurance alone, but they’re also headlining “Mountain Jam,” a white-boy dreadlock fest known put on by Gov’t Mule, this weekend, and will probably do nothing to dissuade fans of Gov’t Mule from being fans of Gov’t Mule. Their now-legendary live shows also contain very little in the way of actual “jamming,” but they’re always extremely loud, hairy, and two hours plus, which I guess is enough to get Disco Biscuits followers to take notice. VH1, NPR, and your dad loves them. They can go on a mixtape for your boss.
Which means they now have a dangerously dedicated fanbase. A few months ago I sampled a limited batch beer named after killer It Still Moves (2003) track “Easy Morning Rebel,” called such because it was an easy drinking Belgian Wit with a surprising hint of cayenne on the back end—purposely put there, I’m told, to approximate the song’s equally surprising false ending where guitarist Carl Broemel bangs away at an A-minor power chord (shout-out to Sixpoint Craft Brewers for being some creative motherfuckers). Yeah, folks of all walks are into the Jacket.
And so is Cokemachineglow. One of the few things that nearly every one of us can agree on is the unquestionable awesomeness of the first four My Morning Jacket full-lengths, and that Evil Urges (2008), while more divisive, is no worse than “good.” Thus, it’s a bit telling when we initially seemed more interested in Circuital‘s rather garish cover art than the contents within. Our fearless EIC Scott Reid, who previously defended Evil Urges, was “really disappointed” with it; Dom dismissed it as “pretty…but really easy”; nobody seemed too eager to sit down and grunt out some words about it. Indeed, after repeated listens and taking what shouldn’t be a burden onto my shoulders, I’ve no choice but to conclude: the CMG staff is correct. Circuital is mighty sedate for a My Morning Jacket record, and at a mere ten songs and 45 minutes, is mostly devoid of the rangy ambition associated with the best aspects of their studio work. Put another way: should the Jacket someday reach their 20th year of existence like one-time tourmates Pearl Jam, not a single song on Circuital is gonna keep you from screaming for “Magheetah” or “The Way That He Sings” at the anniversary gig. Circuital is My Morning Jacket’s Sky Blue Sky (2006).
All of the press run-up to Circuital indicates that the lazy river vibe is by design, a let’s get back to our good ol’ boy roots response to Evil Urges‘ perceived self-indulgence and obligatory length. Certainly not without its fair share of clunkers (“peanut butter pudding surprise,” anyone?), Urges also peaked, gloriously at that, with the epic one-two of “Smokin’ From Shootin’” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. II.” Circuital, on the other hand, delivers its finest (title) track way too early, right in the second slot, and then just sort of pleasantly proceeds from one song to the next, while the listener is left waiting for a “Run Thru” or “Dondante” that never arrives, the pleasantness never much peaking or expressing any dynamism, just happening, as if that is enough.
Jim James and cohorts have seemingly equated a retreat from Evil Urges with inoffensiveness. The only songs on Circuital that have immediate staying power are the spooky opener “Victory Dance” and the aforementioned, six-minute “Circuital,” both effortless in their execution, both indicative of a tight, practiced group of musicians—and both alternate universe cuts that would have been welcome on Z (2005). Then there’s “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” its tongue in its cheek as a gospel choir showtunes the crap out of its initial WTF-nature to reveal itself as one of the catchiest songs on the album, replete with James and his falsetto (good false ending to boot). But the remainder of Circuital fluctuates between MOR country (“Wonderful,” the accurately titled “Slow Slow Tune”), outright filler (“The Day Is Coming”), and snapshots of a back catalog they’ve already mastered, like the horn-laden boogie of “First Light,” an enjoyable song in its own right, but far better as the second half of “Easy Morning Rebel.” James’s voice is as sweet as ever, and the band still piles on the reverb and honeyed pedal steel which Jacket fans crave, but the whole presentation is too polite, too comfortable, not necessarily resigned but suffering from its focus on looking back and celebrating where they’ve been. Where, before, My Morning Jacket has always been a band looking forward, wearing space boots and a cape as if such was a symbol for the uncharted terrain still left to moonwalk all over.
Two months ago I sat down at a bar in a Southern restaurant, and Z lead-off track “Wordless Chorus” immediately began playing on the house iPod. When this was followed by “It Beats 4 U,” I got excited and gave the bartender a knowing nod of musical recognition. This nod was reciprocated. My pulled pork sandwich felt porkier, the cole slaw slawier; it could have tasted like garbage and I wouldn’t have noticed, because I was happy to eat such food to the strains of one of my favorite albums from one of my favorite acts of the past decade. I fear Circuital won’t ever elicit a similar response. It’s a solid, un-embarrassing, simple-minded record that will do nothing to My Morning Jacket’s reputation as one of the greatest American rock bands every American can, and will, get behind. Here’s to riskier futures.