Halfway through My Morning Jacket‘s new self-titled album, some conspicuous brand mentions punctuate songwriter Jim James’ concern for how the comforts of modern life have a tendency to erase and destroy. In the song “The Devil’s in the Details”, James ponders a shopping mall, linking Stranger Things and Sephora with war, exploitation, and negative self-images. As James’ lyrics are often focused on vague spiritual yearning, the references to a Netflix series and beauty retailer seem absurd or crude, at least at first. The effect is similar to the shock of seeing a Sonic fast-food restaurant appear in Terrence Malick’s religious/romantic film To the Wonder (2012).
Yet toward the end of the song, the singer is “down on bended knee / Praying to whoever might could save me.” After “The Devil’s in the Details” is over, and upon further listening, those contrasting elements are all of a piece. Born of streaming television and face paint, this reverie is the most affecting contemplation on an album whose lyrical push for love and solidarity is occasionally weighed down by meandering music.
In a recent interview with GRAMMY.com, James shared his view that “we’ve all gotten swept away in this tidal wave of technology, and that we’re all drowning.” He specifically cited “social media” and “streaming content” as forces that resulted in his “missing out on nature, missing out on connecting with people that I love, and missing out on sitting and playing the guitar. Or meditating or reading a book.”
Creating an album that addresses these forces and their effects is admirable. It is not unlike the modern restlessness with which David Foster Wallace conceived the popular culture-laden Infinite Jest (1996). Speaking with Judith Strasser the year that book was published, Wallace said, “I grew up with television the same way I grew up with like, trees, you know, and parks and books. I mean, I sort of consider myself to be a realist, and a lot of what I think seems very strange or kind of, you know, avant-garde-ish in the book is mostly just an attempt to be mimetic about how, kind of, the world feels against our nerve endings right now.”
James’ version of thinking through television and nature and books comes not in the form of a thousand-plus page novel but the ninth full-length release from his band My Morning Jacket. However, one could locate the seeds of his lyrics on this group effort in his excellent 2018 solo album Uniform Distortion, particularly songs like “Throwback”. “Throwback” confronts the listener with the thoroughly modern social media scenario “scroll back in time through your account / Watch your face grow younger as real-time runs out.”
Uniform Distortion is one of the key works in James’ discography, a combination of lyrical nuggets, humor, and unguarded rock guitar production that touched the “nerve endings” in a way James had not achieved since the peak of his main band’s recorded output, the best of which had ended a decade earlier. My Morning Jacket’s three-album run consisting of soaring Southern rocker It Still Moves (2003), rhythmically dynamic Z (2005), and mishmash masterpiece Evil Urges (2008), remains impressive for the way the group’s songcraft and sonic identity evolved on record, in tandem with their reputation for being an unparalleled live act. As each of those albums ages into the category of classic rock, their vitality becomes even more impressive. Few bands are making albums like that anymore, and no band is making three in a row.
By contrast, My Morning Jacket begins like static rock. The group’s albums have often been promoted as attempts to showcase the power of their live shows, and My Morning Jacket is no exception. There seems to be a miscalculation to that promise here, though, as the first two songs on the album, which are also the first two singles, are among the most plodding and pedestrian of the band’s career. One could argue that the blues rock-influenced “Regularly Scheduled Programming” and comparatively groovy “Love Love Love” tease their live power because they provide skeletons for future jamming (which will certainly come and come mightily in concert). On an album, though, both singles are unmistakably stuck in one gear.
“In Color”, the third song, is a much more successful mode, with James exhibiting some of the 1970s singer-songwriter influence he memorably dialed into on Evil Urges. One could imagine Paul Williams fashioning the melody to “In Color”. More importantly, the song covers a lot of ground, from the tranquil acoustic introduction and understated choruses to a bona fide jam session/section with a lengthy guitar solo and an opportunity for powerhouse drummer Patrick Hallahan to flex his skills, which the more static songs do not allow.
The up-tempo “Least Expected” is progressive in the truest sense, with instrumental layers building across the verses in a way that suits the fanciful lyrics. The recording or mixing of James’ vocals also transforms during the song, providing a character that is missing on the album’s singles. James’ delivery and several of the guitar and drum sounds on “Never in the Real World,” “Complex,” and “Penny for Your Thoughts” are consistent with the style of Uniform Distortion, uniting his growth as a solo act with the higher profile of his main gig.
Much of My Morning Jacket transcends the directionlessness of the two opening tracks and singles. That suggests the possibility that the group decided to begin the album with the least interesting material to create an arc that is not front-loaded with the good stuff; a collection that crescendos in quality and energy like a live show. After all, some of James’ lyrics on My Morning Jacket are explicitly concerned with the importance of the concert performance in an age when “ain’t nobody buying records no more” (“Lucky to Be Alive”).
As a lyric writer, James’ stated desire for some kind of cosmic love or spiritual breakthrough is never too far away from an utterance about commerce or technology or politics. His ambivalence turns out to be a unifying feature of My Morning Jacket and links this collection of songs to much of his past work. This element connects James to Wallace and many others who have wondered similarly about the universe and its keys. In Conversations with Einstein by Alexander Moszkowski, physicist Albert Einstein says, “In every true searcher of Nature there is a kind of religious reverence; for he finds it impossible to imagine that he is the first to have thought out the exceedingly delicate threads that connect his perceptions.” On My Morning Jacket, James continues to sift through those threads and perceptions, offering a treatment for getting washed away by modernity: “I’ll forget about the stress / And I’ll watch the sunset / And feel lucky to be alive.”