Are any musical acts held to stricter standards than a cult-hero indie rock band? Every move that they make is scrutinised and derided by the more vocal elements of their fan base. Take Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket for example. In 2002 they joined up with ATO records for their 2003’s major label debut It Still Moves to the cries of “sellout”. Two years later and another album Z, while receiving almost universal acclaim, was criticized for leaning in a more “pop” direction. And finally Evil Urges in 2008 was divisive in its wide-reaching approach to genre exploration, combining elements of funk, disco, country, and stadium-sized rock. They seem to be a band that has gotten used to praise and backlash in equal measure. And so in 2011, with the release of their new album Circuital, what are they to expect? As a small teaser to the album’s overall sound the band announced that it would be recorded mostly live in an outfitted gymnasium in an effort to reproduce their incendiary live performance. And, with the exception of some post-production luxuries, Circuital is just that. It is also a document of a veteran band coming full circle back to their roots without ignoring all of the ground that they had covered since.
Opening track “Victory Dance” serves as an ominous and intriguing introduction. It inflates and builds upon itself like a lost Led Zeppelin epic; filled with guitar reverb, mystical lyrics, and soaring Native American harmonies. The final powerful notes are still ringing in your ears when the title track begins as a plucked guitar riff being repeated hypnotically over a murky bass drum. It is a recurring motif in the piece that builds into arena-filling choruses before subsiding back into that swampy beat. It is here that singer Jim James lets his trademark falsetto really let rip and he makes the song his own even if it does sound a little like The Who. While the first two songs are heavy on bombast the next few bring the tone down gently. “Wonderful (The way I feel)” and acoustic ballad accompanied by woozy strings, is as pretty a song as they have ever made that transitions into the smouldering angst of “Out of my system”. The real eye-opener of the album comes next in “Holding on to black metal”, a quirky tough-guy strut complete with a gigantic horn section hook and tripped-out back choir (Imagine if “Highly Suspicious” from Evil Urges was less Prince and more Funkadelic although no less daft). If a gang of greasers ever needed a soundtrack for walking menacingly down the street they need look no further. The last third of the album is a slow wind down to the finish with each track softer and more blessed out than the previous.
At the end of the day it is the music that should be deliberated upon not the circumstances under which it was made. My Morning Jacket have always had many strings to their bow and they all seem to be in fine working order. When they want to trade in pomp-filled anthemic rock they can pomp with the best of them. If they go for a flightier, country-tinged direction they are practically peerless. When they reach for their freak flags they are hard to out-freak. There may not be any clearly laid-out singles on the album but it is not lacking in transcendental beauty and mystical cool. The complainers will no doubt complain but nothing can detract from the fact that this is a wonderfully endearing album with many reasons to come back for more.