Grade: 87% (B+)
By now you've probably read a lot about My Morning Jacket's sixth LP Circuital. You probably know all about it's "back to roots" nature, how it was recorded in a converted church in their hometown Louisville, Kentucky, and how it is, as some say, "circular" in fashion, spanning influences from the band's entire career. You've read about the weirdness of the single "Holdin Onto Black Metal," the transition from the first into the second track, and even the beauty that is Jim James by himself with the acoustic guitar on "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)." Let's get over all of that.
When I hear Circuital, I do think it is comparable to the band's first two records, The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn, like previous reviews have indicated. However, this comparison ends right where it begins. Musically, there is not much in common between the first two albums and their latest. I do not hear a coming of age James cooing like he does on "If All Else Fails" or the epically slow burner that is "Phone Went West." The comparison, instead, is in the reach of the songs. The album is not of the life altering magnitude of the band's middle two, It Still Moves and Z. It is more like the first two in the fashion that it is a compilation of ten solid songs put together into one for the purpose of expression. There is no "Dondante" or "Steam Engine" on Circuital. While there are classic MMJ jams found in the title track and the dark and twisted "Holdin Onto Black Metal," the album instead focuses on staying true to form, much like TTF and At Dawn had their standouts like "War Begun" and the previously mentioned PWW.
The gong at the very start of "Victory Dance" truly does welcome in a new age of the Jacket. The song, in contrast to it's lyrics, builds like a sun rising over a distant hill, with you sitting on a bench watching, and waiting, until it climbs into the sky and flows into the southern-indie staple that is "Circuital." While MMJ has been known to release "great" songs in the past, here the standouts are thin, found in the first two tracks and the aforementioned HotBM. Replacing the southern jams are instead four solid and "good but not great" tracks in slots 3,5,7 and 8. However, each has it's own identity. "The Day is Coming" has found itself as a encore selection, with the driving drums and Two Tone Tommy's strong work on the bass. The lyrics of "Outta My System" are enough to make it enjoyable in itself alongside the pulsating tones keyboardist Bo Koster emits after the bridge and Muppets scrap "You Wanna Freak Out" is a prime example of how guitarist Carl Broemel is ever evolving the use of the steel-pedal guitar in modern music. Broemel even rocks out with his saxophone on "First Light," showing the group's ability to continually bridge genre gaps.
Undoubtedly the LP's best track is "Holdin Onto Black Metal." The best way to describe the vocal chorus is to imagine looking up and seeing the skies open up with a thousand angels flying towards you screaming, "HOLDIN ONTO BLACK METAL." Broemel's guitar riff is catchy in a 50's groove kinda way and spooky at the very same time while James continues to get funky with not only his falsetto, but also the arrangement of his pronunciations. While the solo on the title track is great in it's own way, the one here is superior and leads you right back into the chorus like a tornado whipping you head first back into the storm.
James makes little challenges with the lyrics throughout the record until the much disputed final two tracks. While "Slow Slow Tune" is exactly what it's title suggests, the guitar break towards the end ushers in a jamminess that is reminiscent of classic MMJ. James speaks directly to a future listener, reflecting on the power of having someone be so affected by art that you yourself put out. On the closer, the even slower "Movin' Away" is not really comparable to any the track by the quintet. While he sings about life changes and leaving a home behind, James also steps back and allows the rest of the band to take the lead, with Koster's straight up piano being somewhat of a first for the band.
Circuital is not MMJ's best album, nor is it anywhere near it's "worst," but it seems to propel them into the stratosphere of other established bands, allowing them to go any which way with their next effort. They have added solid songs to their catalogue, and each fits into their concert sets perfectly. The aforementioned four solid tracks fit in perfectly in the middle of sets to bridge fan favorites and the epic finish of Black Metal > One Big Holiday will keep fans wanting more for years to come. Circuital is more of a set up album than it is groundbreaking, giving fans the reassurance that MMJ is here to stay and that they will continue on their path of achievement, showing they can now move on their circular path and make more records that change lives.