“Highly Suspicious” is by far the most highly suspicious song in My Morning Jacket’s catalogue. That song, off the band’s last album “Evil Urges”, had notable issues in both the way it was sung (in the highest of high falsettos) and with the lyrics as well (“peanut butter surprise”). For a band with such a consistent career of wild experimentation among their albums yet always remaining within the boundaries of good taste and reason, it appeared they had finally jumped the proverbial shark and reached the wrong side of good taste. Of course that record also produced the absolutely brilliant “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2” an 8-minute freak out of a closing track that ranked among the band’s best material. Still, Jim James & Co. seemed to recognize that their last record was not their finest, and thus have been touting their new one “Circuital” as a return to everything that made them great. While it does come off as more “Z” than “Evil Urges”, some of the more grating moments of the last album do come out and play from time to time, once again sabotaging an attempt at brilliance.
There’s a false sense of security that My Morning Jacket sucks you into from the beginning of “Circuital”. The opening track “Victory Dance” is hypnotic in how it draws you in, first with a lone keyboard and James’ vocal, then slowly rolling out into the expanse over the course of the next few minutes. The next thing you know, five minutes have passed, there’s a huge instrumental swell and suddenly the track is over almost before you realize it had begun. Strange how that works sometimes. But if there’s a quintessential MMJ song on this entire record, it’s the 7+ minute title track, which contains so much of what this band has done right over the last several years. The bright acoustic guitar brings a highway vibe to the song, and the eventual intrusion of the jagged electric guitar solos along with some waterfalls of piano notes are pure magic. There may not be any obscene stretches of James’ vocal range as he’s done on occasion, but in this case it’s not particularly required. If they wrote an entire album’s worth of songs as amazing as that title track, it’d be the band’s best with relative ease, and that’s with an already strong catalogue. Unfortunately this story ends in tragedy, particularly because not a single other track on the album cracks skulls open and explodes out of them with fully expanded wings. That’s not to say the rest of the songs on the album are all of poor quality, but a better way to put it might be to mention a distinct lack of highlights on the album’s second half.
Before we tackle that though, there are still a handful of rock solid My Morning Jacket songs on “Circuital” worth mentioning. Despite its general state of acoustic quiet, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” makes great use of Jim James’ voice, something that the rest of the record cannot quite boast. There’s a surprisingly large gap between how James’ vocals are used on this album (and earlier ones) versus how dynamic and wide-ranging they are live. At the very least it’s nice to hear his full talents being put to betterm nire realistic uses. As for the drug tale “Outta My System”, it contains a fair amount of humor that MMJ likes to throw in on occasion. Assuming you “get” their style of comedy, it makes for one of the most fun tracks on the record. Moving from that to the interesting and moderately goofy “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” creates a dynamic 1-2 punch that only misses the mark slightly. That first single, complete with children’s choir and falsetto vocals, can be grating to some. If neither of those things annoy you, it actually makes for a rather catchy and likeable track that’s easily better than any of the official singles released on “Evil Urges”. The “lesson” the song teaches about never giving up on heavy metal music feels as if it was written in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, which is definitely better than assuming outright sincerity.
The energy held on “First Light” and “You Wanna Freak Out” keep “Circuital” from rolling completely off the tracks, but ultimately both songs are rather bland and formulaic from a band that tends to avoid doing either. If My Morning Jacket were to hammer out a very commercially acceptable pop record with little regard for all the talent they have and have shown throughout the years, those two songs would fit in very well. They’re easy on the ears and pleasant to a fault. If there was ever a place for a wild guitar solo or even just a jam session, those would have been the spots to put them. The end of the record slows things down significantly, starting first with the properly titled “Slow Slow Tune”. In spite of temptations to write a song like that off, it’s James’ wounded and heartfelt vocal performance that saves it from becoming a total wreck. Closing with “Movin Away” however doesn’t do much for anybody. The glacial pace at which it moves sounds like the band is altogether tired and uninspired.
When placed in direct comparison with “Evil Urges”, “Circuital” is an improvement. Not that big of one, but better than expected. It may be even easier to think of these songs having a combination of elements from the band’s last couple records. What’s unfortunate is that this is coming from a band that has always tended to look forwards rather than backwards. Given that this is their sixth album though, they can be a little forgiven for scaling back just a little on any big ideas. You can only evolve so much before you start running low on new areas to mine. Still, for a band with the famous line from “Wordless Chorus” that says, “We are the innovators/they are the imitators”, there’s a lot more imitating than innovating going on here. Yet it’s self-imitation, and to be fair a lot of this stuff still sounds pretty damn great even if it’s been done before. There are no flagrant mistakes that ever take you out of the record, just a few more mediocre moments that don’t quite hit their mark. Nevertheless, this band is anything if not resilient and the future still burns brighter than ever for them even if they fail to return to peak condition.