The Eye in the MMJ Sky

If you measure success as confusing people, provoking discussions, evoking strong feelings, keeping listeners off balance, creating opposing camps, having the same record hated and loved by equal minorities, then Circuital by My Morning Jacket is already a big hit. In fact Jim James and his mates in MMJ now seem to be solidly defining success as rattling their listeners, making them uneasy; challenging their definition of what MMJ is with every record. And they seem to have mastered gaining and losing new audiences with each succeeding recording project. Those who came to love Z (2005) hated Evil Urges (2008) which itself drew a whole new audience which now hates Circuital which again has drawn yet another new audience. It’s quite an impressive cycle.

I’ve never seen more impassioned kvetching over a rock band than what was generated by the band’s turn towards retro funk/Prince that was Evil Urges. If it’s a band that finds a certain songwriting or stylistic groove that works and then stays in it forever—in other words an artist whose vision that doesn’t evolve or grow—then MMJ ain’t your act. Like Wilco, these guys are moving targets, who also like Wilco, are also a killer live act. As drummer Patrick Hallahan told The New York Times recently, “There’s no expectations. We can kind of be whatever we want to be, and I think that characteristic comes through in this band. We’re not just one way, ever.”

And those who hated Evil Urges may really despise Circuital. Then again they may dig it. A sprawling, formal, grandiosity seems to be the point this time out. All the band’s many musical interests are here: alt country, psychedelia. 70’s funk, jambandland, even South Asia rock. Fortunately, the band’s innate sense of humor about it all, which I think has saved all their records tom some degree, leavens the heavy–o–sity. Despite the fact that MMJ returned to its hometown of Louisville to make this record in the bare bones DIY setting of an old church instead of a fancy studio like they did with Evil Urges, Circuital is a large record in terms of production. A tune like “Holdin On To Black Metal” which features a wave of female voices (the Black Metal Girls) on the chorus lines is nothing if not grandiloquent. It’s this often slow, often poppy, elaborate, some might say bloatedness (Pomposity?) that will drive some fans, old or new, away from this record and bring on new recruits. Those that are leaving will miss a pair of classic Jim James–penned ballads, “Slow, Slow Tune,” and “Movin’ Away.” And James’ singing, which has always been the band’s strongest suit, is still the best part here. Critical reception has been amazingly varied from abject hate to qualified love. But again, I consider a huge gray area like that to be a badge of success. My favorite review, in the Chicago Sun–Times contained this line: “The band’s limp sense of humor occasionally lifts things above a ponderous Doobie Brothers vibe.” The Doob Wahs? Clearly, the person who wrote that needs to be held down and forced into some remedial listening of The Captain and Me or Minute By Minute neither of which, like all Doobie records, sound anything like Circuital. But again when you can hear and read critics ponderously grinding for irrelevant comparisons, it’s a victory. Evade and confuse. The methodical MMJ madness.