My Morning Jacket never seemed like the most likely candidates for any kind of explosive mainstream breakthrough, but paradoxically, the band has always been too massive for a niche underground audience. Their live shows are legendary, their songs expansive and emotionally gripping, and their reputation for reinvention putting them in the enviable company of Radiohead and Wilco. Most importantly, every one of the band’s albums seems legendary to a certain degree, from the warm Southern rock of At Dawn to the folky psychedelia of It Still Moves, the arena bombast of Z and the Prince-inspired weirdness of Evil Urges. And though few of these records boasted much in the way of a surefire hit single, there’s no shortage of tracks with staying power or unbridled live energy in their discography.
The band’s sixth album, Circuital, does nothing to halt the momentum or largesse perpetuated by their run of albums up to this point, yet it does show that the band’s commitment to continual evolution is firmly intact. Marking a turn away from the funky experimentation of 2008’s Evil Urges, Circuital is a return to a more rootsy form of rock ‘n’ roll, the kind of thing they’ve done so splendidly since day one. And yet, it’s also an album that stands on its own, tangentially similar to the rest of their discography in some aesthetic sense, but boasting an identity all its own. It’s atmospheric, though not to the degree that It Still Moves was, and it rocks, but not in a manner quite as explosive as Z. Rather, it’s a mature and solid rock album, one that hits a spectacular groove early on and rarely lets up.
Igniting the album with some soulful Rhodes piano, fiery guitar licks and falsetto vocals, “Victory Dance” begins the album with a suspense-building, melodically breathtaking arrangement that sets a high bar for the rest of the album to follow. Yet if any of the tracks here can ably compete with the opener’s dramatic and gorgeous power, it’s the title track, a seven-minute epic of folky melodicism and classic rock bravado loaded with guitar heroics and enduring hooks. This opening duo of songs is amazing enough to overshadow the remainder of the album, and as two of the best tracks here, they certainly dominate, but the band loads their share of gems deep within the album, albeit ones that may not quite pack such a wallop on first listen.
Following that head-spinning pair of opening tracks, “The Day Is Coming” brings the band back down to earth with a soulful and beautifully arranged pop song, rich with strings and infectious piano. Frontman Jim James offers an endearing nursery rhyme of youthful indiscretion on the dreamy and highly catchy “Outta My System,” while the band bolsters “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” with horns, a choir and some tongue-in-cheek lyrics about Lucifer. And “First Light” is merely a fuzzy and soulful good time, a fun track among fun tracks, and high on replay value.
The sequencing of Circuital is a curious thing, frontloaded with epics but by and large a collection of easily digestible and hook-laden pop songs. While these elements on paper seem somewhat incongruous, such a gambit is par for the course for My Morning Jacket, a band whose penchant for bold showmanship and pop songwriting alike coexist harmoniously and, in the process, appeal to classic rockers, indie kids and jam band devotees alike. The trick to bringing these demographics together, as My Morning Jacket displays on Circuital, is merely to be a damn good rock ‘n’ roll band.
The Band – The Band
Bright Eyes – Lifted, Or the Story is in the Soil, Put Your Ear to the Ground
Mercury Rev – Deserters’ Songs
Stream: My Morning Jacket – “Circuital”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.