It’s hard to get your head around the fact that it’s been 12 years since My Morning Jacket released their first studio LP, The Tennessee Fire. Time must fly when you’re putting in the hours these guys have. Since their debut, the Louisville-based band has not only become one of the premier live acts of their age bracket, but they’ve churned out several albums now without one major misstep (yes, even 2008’s Evil Urges has its charms). Astoundingly, all these accomplishments were done while constantly twisting their sound into a variety of styles: alt-country, southern-fried rock, neo-psychedelia, mild experimentalism, and whatever type of idiosyncratic prog-funk “Highly Suspicious” is. And while these genre-shifting moves have made them one of the more interesting performers over the past decade or so, they have nonetheless polarized some of their early adopter fan base. For them, the quintet’s decision to not continue to mine the classic rock sounds that were cultivated through 2003’s It Still Moves marked a transgression rather than a blossoming.
Consequently, the early chatter that their sixth proper studio album, Circuital, was a “return to their roots” was like a clarion call for the early MMJ orthodox. But as strong as those early works were, thankfully their dyed-in-the-wool supporters didn’t get their At Dawn redux. Who needs the self-parody? Rather, Circuital is exactly what the album’s title implies, a full-circling that touches on everything they’ve previously done and places it all into a unified timbre.
The result, regrettably, doesn’t cumulate into their strongest album to date–that title still belongs to 2005’s Z–but it’s still a top-to-bottom solid effort. It doesn’t contain the restlessness of the aforementioned Z or the audacity of It Still Moves, but what it does display is a band that’s become confident enough to step away from bouncing against the boundaries and instead spend some time refining the styles already in their repertoire. Circuital is the sound of five musicians in a room (or in this case a church’s gymnasium), and no question that’s how they wanted it.
The album’s opening one-two salvo is alone worth the price of admission. “Victory Dance” is the most jarring thing here, which starts off a mystifying slow-burning jam that ebbs and flows through the dark side of the Allman Brothers Band before morphing into a coda of singer/guitarist Jim James’ howl and a skronky guitar freak-out reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s “European Son”. The feedback of “Victory Dance” bleeds right into the album’s title track, a seven-minute Byzantine builder that begins with plucking acoustics and buried lost-in-space keyboards and then shifts into an epic Maximum R&B power-chord chugger. It’s primo My Morning Jacket, stacking up against some of the finest songs in their catalog.
The more whimsical elements of MMJ’s recent past are present on the superb “Holding on to Black Metal”. Inspired by a rare nugget from a Thai soul-pop compilation, it’s cheerily funky up top, with an all-female choir and groovy Stax-style horn blasts, but it also contains a cartoonishly demented underbelly. Chock-full of lyrics about Lucifer and “a darkness you can’t deny/but it don’t belong in a grown-up mind,” it’s delivered with enough tongue-in-cheek irreverence that it comes off as being tailor-made for a Hanna-Barbera Halloween special.
Elsewhere, there’s the power pop song “First Light”, which sounds like a cover of an unearthed track from the Beatles’ Revolver sessions, and “You Wanna Freak Out” is a three-minute rocker that at first feels forgettable but grows its legs when it caps off with James trading fuzzed-up guitar licks with Carl Broemel’s steel pedal. And on “Outta My System”, the band channels the Beach Boys finally confessing to illicit use: “They told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen/Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison.”
On the reverse side of the spectrum, the band’s more serene side takes over, like on the magnificent utopia-longing ballad “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and the subtle, soft rocker “The Day Is Coming”. But this laid-back vibe becomes a focal point when the latter part of the album falls into this sedative groove and never comes back. My Morning Jacket’s previous two releases went for the end-of-album gusto, with Z capping off with the maximalist noodler “Dondante” and Evil Urges with the absinthe-laced, extended disco tune “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2”. Circuital, on the other hand, simply drifts out with the atmospheric-country ditty “Slow Slow Tune” and the beautiful yet slightly solemn piano ballad “Movin Away”.
Some will dismiss Circuital because it falls short of the classic album that they know the band has in them. Others will simply be befuddled over the fact that it doesn’t contain any extended guitar workouts. But why knock it for what it simply isn’t or doesn’t include when there’s plenty here to admire? It’s an album containing 10 diverse songs—all performed with near immaculate precision—that reward with repeat visits.