Has My Morning Jacket come full circle? The title of its latest album would suggest as much. The band has certainly come quite a long way in just over a decade, but it's not as if Circuital is a return to the lo-fi form of the Louisville outfit's quiet 1999 debut on the tiny indie Darla. If we take Jim James at his word on the album's title track, Circuital goes back much further: “I'm older, day by day/But still going back to my childhood way.” My Morning Jacket's sixth studio album is as huge and openhearted as fans have come to expect the group to be, yet its recent eccentricities have been dialed down a bit. In their place is in many ways the band's most mature album, in which James pauses to take stock of his life to this point — both as a rock star and well before.
Beginning with the muscular, swaggering 2003 breakthrough It Still Moves, expanding in every direction with the spacey 2005 followup Z and the towering 2006 live double album Okonokos, it seemed for a few years that My Morning Jacket couldn't possibly take a wrong step. Its streak hit a speed bump with 2008's divisive Evil Urges, on which the band members kowtowed too much to the jam-band crowd with goofy funk pastiches and awkward, arena-sized intimacies. To put the band's narrative in terms of rock mythology: The members “paid their dues” with their first two albums, toured like mad, gained widespread critical acclaim with their third and fourth, and cashed in their accumulated capital on their fifth. With Circuital, they're taking a bit of a break.
And thankfully so. The misfires that dragged down Urges have largely been excised in lieu of what feels more like a career retrospective — the “circuit” of the title doubling as a nod to the band's legendary tours. James is at his most pensive and philosophical on much of the album, whether taking stock of his life on the quietly epic title track, gently prophesizing on the sultry “The Day Is Coming,” or on the delicate, country-tinged “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and “Movin' Away,” contemplating leaving the busy world to go where “the living is easy.” Settling down can feel really good.
Let us not overlook that he is “going where there ain't no police.” Because while Circuital is far from the Phish trip of Urges, there's plenty here that subtly plays to the band's significant patchouli-wearing fanbase. Part of the new album's success is that the band has learned to do so without just sounding dorky, as on 2008's surveillance-society goof “Highly Suspicious.” Instead, there's the opening line of one of the LP's best and most nostalgic tracks, the soaring anthem “Outta My System,” during which it's easy to imagine a packed amphitheater erupting in a spontaneous singalong: “They told me not to take drugs/But I wouldn't listen.” The song is a cautionary tale of sorts — James teaching us through his own mistakes — and its title, as is probably obvious, turns out to have a double meaning. Putting your youthful indiscretions in the past is a rite of passage, but then again, so is the literal flushing of THC traces out of your body.
It's clear here, as it has always been, that the recorded versions of these songs are mere steppingstones to furious live performances. Along with the Flaming Lips and Wilco (the two bands between which James and company nestle perfectly), My Morning Jacket is as close to a bankable bigtime live act as exists right now. Circuital feels like it's dying to bloom in large theaters and festivals, particularly the dynamic chord changes of the quietly epic title track, the soaring gospel coda of “System,”and especially the riff-heavy “First Light,” the band's first song since 2003 to feel like it could fit in a setlist seamlessly among Moves' Muscle Shoals–powered “Mahgeetah” and “Dancefloors.”
Which leaves an important question: Does the quirky, celebratory “Victory Dance” open or close the set? The introductory fanfare — think Roman Colosseum — and slinky vibes suggest it'd be the perfect curtain-raising number to get bodies moving. On the other hand, it would work perfectly as the first encore number, a way of reintroducing the sweaty crowd to the conquering heroes. The album's other outré number, the brassy, seasick “Holding On to Black Metal,” is sure to inspire plenty of raised devil horns within the live throngs, if not raised eyebrows among others. Profoundly influenced by a 1960s psych-pop nugget from Thailand called “E-Saew Tam Punha Huajai,” “Black Metal” is the most divisive song on the new album (my conversations with fellow fans have split down the middle, though I'm firmly on the “yes” side). Regardless, it certainly twists Circuital's prevailing theme: keeping in touch with the past, no matter how uncool it might be.
It's clear that the members of My Morning Jacket long ago stopped worrying about being cool. They're simultaneously goofy and sincere, prone to meaty extended jam sessions, soft rock getaways, and proggy, intricately costumed geekouts. As the band inches toward elder statesmen status, Circuital's many charms arise from the band's clear ease with its own brand of rock quirkiness and willingness to reconnect with its roots.