God, nature, and the meaning of life. What does it all mean? Jim James wants to know.
Such an existential line of questioning doesn’t easily lend itself to clean answers or firm interpretation, but that doesn’t keep James from trying to work it all out. As such, the My Morning Jacket frontman’s solo debut, Regions of Light and Sound of God, is a hefty, meditative musical excursion rooted in a taster’s choice of musical styles, including folk, pop, soul, funk, chamber pop, and space rock, to name but a few. Whether or not James comes to any finite conclusions at the end of all his toilsome soul-searching is uncertain, but fortunately the fun rests more in the journey than it does the answers.
Regions is a big record, both in its thematic aspirations and the melting pot of genres James tries to work into his heady musical potpourri. But long-time fans won’t be caught off guard. After all, My Morning Jacket’s music has never suffered from a lack of ambition, so it’s little surprise that James’ debut is similarly sprawling. But it’s the ideas and concepts James chases after on Regions that give it power. Inspired by A Gods’ Man, a collection of woodcut art released in 1929, the album swings through different moods and soundscapes like a pendulum, tackling feelings of solitude and isolation with one stroke, wonder and whimsy with the next.
“State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)” opens with rumbling timpani and quizzical string sounds, setting the stage for the record’s momentous plot. But the song quickly takes the first of the record’s many zigs and zags, settling into a sparse, weary piano breakdown accompanied by James’ echoed vocals. The song slowly builds and settles into a comfortable groove with the addition of subtle drums, bass, and funky guitar lines. “Know Til Now” digs deeper into ’70s soul and disco, coupled with electronic breaks and flourishes, while “Of the Mother Again” sounds positively spring-like as James wrestles to keep up with a world that’s constantly in flux (“Doing what it takes, day by day, in our own way, to make this world feel like home”). The record casts a wide net, but pulls in some rich sonic rewards.
Elsewhere, MMJ fans will take kindly to the sweet, somber folk ruminations on “A New Life”, which looks at reincarnation through the lens of a second chance at love (“I think I’m really being sincere / I want a new life, a new life with you”). “God’s Love to Deliver” explores the irony that can come from trying to solve life’s big questions (“Running in circles to find the real love / The love that found me when I least expected it”), and its pronounced, cosmic feel, accented by echoing vocals, light acoustic guitar, orchestral strings, and the faintest hint of banjo, cuts the listener adrift as the album draws to a close.
Ultimately, Regions wins by turning broad, universal questions into James’ own personal conquests. Over the course of nine songs, James crafts an album that’s equal parts weighed down by loneliness and lifted up with hope, sometimes distant and other times fully engaged. And in exploring that polarity, the record hits upon the universal truth that life is the sum of its peaks and valleys, and we’re all left to navigate the roads.
Essential Tracks: “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)”, “A New Life”, “Of the Mother Again”, and “God’s Love To Deliver”