Much of what was revealed from the band’s camp about Circuital before its release was simply that it was a return to form for My Morning Jacket. Jim James and company would once again be going back to their roots and channeling their previous classics At Dawn and It Still Moves. In fact, what choice did they have but to advertise and promote Circuital in this very way? The band’s previous album, Evil Urges, was largely regarded by critics as an anomaly, a misstep for a very talented and reliable group of musicians. Yet to completely write off their last work is a mistake in and of itself. Though there were a few moments that perplexed the listener, the highlights, such as “Evil Urges,” “I’m Amazed,” “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” and “Smokin’ from Shootin” proved great contributions to the band’s live set and catalog.
So, is Circuital indeed a return to form for the band? Does it provide the consistency that Evil Urges lacked at times? Upon multiple listens, the answer is far more complicated than a simple yes or no. Opener “Victory Dance” commences the album with the sound of a trumpet, calling to mind images of a king making his grand entrance into the arena. From there, My Morning Jacket leads the listener through quite possibly its best song to date. There are traces of the band’s early days and sound within the song, but ultimately it displays a new direction for the members, one that is far more brooding. The heavy bass provides a steady, thunderous stomp that builds tension as James’ vocals register in a key far lower than is customary for a MMJ song. Together with the guitar, the combination of sound slowly and deliberately builds up to a sonic explosion, with James’ trademark wail hovering over the music as the band slowly disintegrates into a frenzied wall of sound by the song’s end. It is the magnum opus of the band’s career, and will most certainly be a staple in the band’s live set.
The title track continues this method of building tension and progressing to a sonic climax. This time, a tantalizing guitar riff is used to keep the rhythm and work towards another satisfying musical apex to conclude the song. “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” recalls James’ work with the supergroup side project Monsters of Folk and “Outta My System” is the closest MMJ has ever come to writing a full-on pop tune. Its sunny atmospherics and straightforward, feel-good lyricism succeed in catching the audience’s ear and providing an enjoyable listen. “System,” however, functions as the calm before the storm that is “Holdin’ On to Black Metal.” Much like Evil Urges’ “Highly Suspicious,” the band courageously departs from its comfort zone and branches out into unabashed experimentation. While “Suspicious” alienated some fans and listeners, it is hard to imagine this track displeasing any of the faithful. Incorporating the falsetto of James with elements of jazz, blues and rock n’ roll, My Morning Jacket discard the tension-building technique employed at the beginning of the album, and opts instead to grab hold of the listener from the first note. It is a true romp, a pleasantly evil rollercoaster ride that showcases both the talent and willingness of the band to constantly challenge its sound.
Yet the remainder of the album after “Black Metal” ultimately keeps Circuital from becoming a true classic. Not that the rest of the songs are bad per say, but one cannot help but feel a bit let down after the brilliance of the record’s first half. “First Light” and “You Wanna Freak Out” are admittedly catchy enough; nevertheless, with the band’s potential and the flashes of greatness heard at the album’s beginning, one comes to expect more from My Morning Jacket. All in all, Circuital is neither a return to roots nor a complete departure for the band. While the change in Urges felt forced at times, this record achieves its greatest moments when the band uses its original sound as a basis to naturally progress its music into something greater and more unique. Circuital falters when the group seemingly forces itself to craft songs that recall their “roots” and previous albums. If there is something to be learned from here, it is that My Morning Jacket truly shines and realizes its potential when force is not a factor in their songwriting.
My Morning Jacket will be at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Alpharetta on August 20.