I should warn you that this review of “Circuital,” the lead-off track from the forthcoming My Morning Jacket’s album of the same name, will eventually turn into a short appreciation for At Dawn, which turned ten years old last week. Also, there will be a brief side tour during which I will lament the cover art (the glowing eye below) of MMJ’s forthcoming album and it will be lamented entirely in rhetorical questions. And I’ll let you know, of course, which section is which by clearly marking it with helpful visual cues. I don’t want to waste your time.
After the horrid Evil Urges, I was ready to completely write off My Morning Jacket’s career as a wild fluke or a terrifying case of mass cultural psychosis. Evil Urges was not just disappointing; it was malevolently bad. It was the kind of album that made me reconsider everything that I ever loved about a band. My Morning Jacket are at their worst when they stick to the script. Paradoxically, My Morning Jacket is at their second worst when they start trying to redefine the boundaries of the band. They did both of these things on Evil Urges. After Evil Urge‘s release, I still occasionally dusted off At Dawn or Tennessee Fire, but I didn’t listen to them with the same fervor I did seven or eight years ago. All of this is to say that I’m glad that My Morning Jacket seem to be at least trying to recapture some of the magic that briefly made them the best band in America. ”Circuital” literally sounds like an older, more studio friendly trying to recapture the barn silo rock of their first low budget independent releases. The tightly wound first half slowly unspools into something hairier, looser by the second half when the whole band has entered the song. This kind of classic build up is exactly what makes My Morning Jacket’s best work oddly predictable and predictably great.
Also, what the fuck is with that cover art? How am I supposed to take that seriously for Christ’s sake? What am I looking at up there? Some half-baked prog rock exercise in translating Orwell’s 1984 into a ponderously grand rock opera? What if Circuital turns out to be a great album that I want to share with my children in the future? How am I supposed to hand them this sickly green eye and explain that this represents one of the great works of a great band? What child would take this seriously? Moreover, what adult is going to take this seriously? Why are My Morning Jacket, whose return is a little more tenuous than most people recognize, tempting fate with such an awful cover?
After nearly two minutes of darkly abstract noise making, At Dawn formally opens with the confident strum of a warm acoustic guitar and the steady ache of Jim James’ voice. That bright voice literally marks the rising of the sun over the sprawling expanse of this album, but within two minutes James has brutally murdered anyone who dared question his musical dreams. No, literally: he murders them with a knife.
Even within this first song, My Morning Jacket have presented as open-and-shut of a case for themselves as anything that follows on this album. This is a band completely unafraid to push themselves into strange territory for their art. For example, the ostensible Neil Young homage “Death is the Easy Way” is directly followed by another more faithful and even sparser Young homage, “Hopefully.” This kind of ballsiness verges on ignorance or stupidity, but it’s a genius move in its own way. And there’s “X-Mas Curtain,” whose internal contradictions threaten to break open a black hole right in the middle of this album: it’s a Christmas song (I think) about criminals (I think) who never break the law (?) that features a steel drum (!?). But the remarkable thing about At Dawn is that it never comes across as a wacky Beck Hansen exercise in postmodern appropriation and collage. At Dawnis tonally and emotionally consistent, informed by its own tender if somewhat warped logic. More to the point: At Dawn is one of the most consistently gorgeous albums of the past 10 years. The slower numbers, especially “Hopefully” and “Bermuda Highway,” are simply stunning, and the upbeat numbers like “Lowdown” and “Just Because I Do” are thrilling country rock barn burners.
In At Dawn, My Morning Jacket created a muscular album ostensibly about romance. The album tingles with the anxieties of the heart: from the confident swagger of “Lowdown” to the fragile “I Needed It Most,” nearly every song on the album is a grandiose valentine, even those primarily concerned without having anyone by your side. On an album where nearly every song feels like a center of gravity, “Phone Went West” feels (to me, at least) like the central thesis of the record. An odd reggae-inspired beat guides this rousing anthem about a foolhardy quest for redemption and reunion. The slow fire that builds in the song’s final minutes start has a tentative question that seeks approval: ”There’ll be a knock on your front door?” But soon this line changes shape, gaining a rhetorical edge that glints with promise: “There’ll be a knock on your back door.” James, unsurprisingly, is skirting expectations, winning someone over by finding an alternate route to their heart, a strategy that has been battle tested over the course of the whole of At Dawn.