The debut solo album by the lead singer of a popular band can be a mixed bag of failed experiments and half-assed leftovers that weren’t good enough for the artist’s main project. For every breakout artist like Peter Gabriel there’s a dozen like Mick Jagger, whose solo career pales in comparison to his band’s legendary output. In the case of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, he finds himself in an interesting position. As his band’s albums have become more bombastic, James seems to have retreated into several side projects, including Monsters of Folk and the Woody Guthrie-inspired New Multitudes project, which have returned him to his band’s original sound. So, it should be no surprise to see his first full-length album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, return to a similar aesthetic as early My Morning Jacket recordings.
Regions of Light opens with the slow piano jam “State of the Art (AEIOU).” Stripped completely of any instruments except for a piano and James’s voice, the song has the feel of an old Stax-era soul song. As the tune builds into a muscular, yet quiet groove, James croons “are we bitter human beings?” It may seem like a throwaway line, but it’s a telling one: the entire record feels like a conscious effort to clear the table of the personal and the professional alike. While there’s little in the way of a cohesive storyline in the record, there is a theme of rebirth and spiritual consciousness. “Know ‘Til Now” offers more of the same, with its trippy opening and hip-hop beat, bringing to mind some of the lighter tunes from The Avalanches. Again, James waxes philosophic, whispering “I could not have known/how sweet life could be.”
This sudden meditative vibe can be traced back to James falling off the stage at a My Morning Jacket concert in 2008. Following the accident, a friend gave him a copy of the 1927 proto-graphic novel “God’s Man.” Inspired by the story of an artist who makes a Faustian deal with a stranger, James goes all in with references to religion and new beginnings. Such ruminations are common in the pantheon of rock music, but James manages to infuse an R&B sensibility that gives these tracks a distinctive sound.
From the Sufjan Stevens-like opening of “Dear One” to the quiet finger picking on “Exploding,” it’s clear that James has something to prove. While there’s not much deviation in sound, Regions of Light and Sound of God is the most personal album James has been a part of since My Morning Jacket’s At Dawn. That’s not a knock on James and his other projects – on the contrary, experimentation and development are good things. But, it’s been so long since we’ve heard James sing without many of the production flourishes found in his main band that it feels like the album is essentially an extension of those early My Morning Jacket albums.
Take the fourth song and single, “A New Life.” It’s a humble number, on par with “Nashville to Kentucky” with its simple lyrics. But, James sounds so incredibly honest and emotionally raw when he says “I’m really being sincere/I want a new life with you” that you can’t help but buy into that sentimentality. Even better is the slow build of the song, complete with jazz textures including a saxophone outro.
Make no mistake; this is an album that sounds completely out of sync with most of today’s music. It has an R&B soul, but it’s built like an old jazz album, complete with repeating motifs and extended instrumentals that bleed into the next track. The song “Actress” even has a string section as it attacks the “myth and the legend” of celebrity. Sure, it makes references to the aforementioned “God’s Man,” but it may as well be a knock on My Morning Jacket’s ’best band ever’ status when James says, “you’re good at making everyone believe that they love you.”
In the final song, “God’s Love to Deliver,” the themes of faith, love, and forgiveness are wrapped in a song about Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a beautiful closer, wrapping the album up neatly. While James may go back to the bombastic tendencies of his full-time work with My Morning Jacket, it was nice to hear the singer the way we originally did back in the early days of the band. While the record may seem unassuming at first, give it time and you’ll find it to be one of the more intriguing albums of the young year.