My Morning Jacket’s frontman delivers a deeply personal solo album that chronicles a fall from grace, recovery and redemption
-By Kayne Lanahan in Savannah, GA
On October 7th 2008, Jim James fell off the stage at a My Morning Jacket concert in Iowa City,Iowa; an event that would change his life forever. As James moved to the edge of the stage to play for the crowd, he went to step up on a row of subwoofers just as he had done hundreds of times before. The lights went dark for just an instant and James stepped off into darkness. The band cancelled the rest of their U.S. and European fall tours as James recovered at home in Louisville, KY, suffering from extensive internal injuries.
The event turns out to have been a bit of an epiphany for James who believes it was meant to happen. He recently told Rolling Stone Magazine “I felt like I was going down a dark path in life … You get into these life patterns and you get so sucked in. You almost don’t listen to yourself, even when you know you need to change. Your body will be screaming at you, “This is wrong for you!” and you just don’t listen. It’s this struggle between your heart and your body and when you don’t listen, you lose. You fucking fall off the stage”.
During the recovery, James spent a great deal of time with Gods’ Man, a 1929 Graphic Novel told in woodcuts by artist Lynd Ward. The wordless novel depicts an artist’s struggle in a world filled with greed and corruption who is ‘saved’ by a woman he loves after falling off a cliff. Newly in love and recovering physically and emotionally from his own fall, James was so taken by the parallels in the story to his own life that he began to score the book. The result, Regions of Light and Sound of God, (four years in the making) was released February 5th on ATO Records.
The result is a stunning record that sets the early pace for one of the most interesting and creative albums of 2013. Fans of My Morning Jacket will instantly identify with the soulful threads of music that appeared in the band’s last two albums, Evil Urges and Circuital but the southern rock sound of earlier MMJ efforts is nowhere in sight. Die-hard “Jacket” fans know that soul and funk have always been James‘ true north, whether it’s his live covers of Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack and Prince or “Cobra” from the 2002 MMJ EP, Chocolate and Ice. At heart, Jim James has always been the most soulful white guy this side of the Mississippi.
On ROLSOG, he mixes in elements of jazz, gospel and the occasional middle eastern flair with his trademark Omnichord woven throughout. James plays nearly all the instruments on the album which was recorded and mastered at his home studio in Louisville. The record feels like he went into his closet and pulled out all the toys and said ‘let’s set them free’. It’s a giant collage of music that takes the listener on a journey through life, from questioning the heightened role of technology in our lives to the power of love, forgiveness, redemption and yes, religion. While there is no doubt a spiritual thread throughout the record, James plays with both the lightness and darkness of the journey.
The album kicks off with “State of The Art (AEIOU)”, a mesmorizing song that starts off with nothing more than a simple gospel tinged piano and James’ perfect high falsetto voice before it evolves into a fine, funky, anthem about the impact of technology overload on the human condition.
I used the state of the art tech-nology/Supposed to make for better living/Are we better human beings?
We’ve got our wires all crossed/Our tubes are all tied/And I’m straining to remember/Just what it means to be alive
On “Know Til Now” he takes us on a psychedelic, R&B inspired journey that sounds like an early version of a 70′s Isaac Hayes track. As James muffles “I am lost in the world”, we dive deeper into the dream with him. The track ends with a brilliant jazz-inspired free-fall complete with scratchy needles and horns. In short, it’s brilliant.
Other standout tracks include “All Is Forgiven” and “New Life” which is the heart and soul of the album. If you’ve ever doubted the redemptive power of love, this song’s gonna turn your head around. It’s the closest thing to a My Morning Jacket cut on the album and could have sit comfortably on Circuital next to “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” but the simple, beautiful emotion feels purer than anything James has released before; you can feel his joyous soul pouring through your speakers.
On “All Is Forgiven”, a distinctly middle eastern vibe is carried throughout the track as he takes us down a path that feels like a walk through the winding streets of Istanbul at midnight. It’s dark and haunting and moving and timeless. His artful use of the Omnichord is most prevalent here- it literally becomes the messenger of the song.
As My Morning Jacket fans know, seeing Jim James live is a transformative multi-hour event. At only 38 minutes in length, fans have been wondering how the solo album will play out in the recently announced 19 market ‘solo’ tour which kicks off April 19th in Louisville. James and his new touring band did a test run on February 1st at The Basement in Nashville in front of about 100 people.They played Regions Of God and Sound of Man start to finish and then went into a full set of My Morning Jacket favorites with MMJ’s Carl Broemel joining the band. Here’s a fan shot montage of some of the highlights:
No word on whether this format will continue for the rest of the tour which is playing venues that are small by My Morning Jacket standards. The 1100 capacity Orange Peel show on May 3rd in Asheville, NC (the closest show to Savannah, Ga where I live) sold out in 3 days. The band will play a few more ‘test’ shows in New York and Philly during February, including the Tibet House Benefit concert at Carnegie Hall on February 21st.