Friday, June 03, 2011

Song of the Week: My Morning Jacket, "Circuital"

There are probably 40-50 artists whose next album release I anticipate.  There are probably 20-25 artists whose new album I will almost definitely buy at the time of its release.  There are probably 8-12 artists whose new album I will buy sight unseen/sound unheard the very second it's available.  That list, off the top of my head:

Bob Dylan
Pearl Jam
Cory Branan
Outkast (if it ever happens)
White Stripes (probably won't ever happen)
Green Day
Tom Petty
New Pornographers
My Morning Jacket

Of those, there are artists I probably love more than My Morning Jacket.  But I might anticipate a new MMJ album more than any other.  This is mostly because, after twelve years and six full albums, I still don't know their ceiling.  It Still Moves established them as a heavyweight, but Z and Evil Urges proved they still had room to grow, both artistically and commercially.  As great as they are, I keep thinking their next album will be their best.  And as popular as they are, I keep thinking their next single will be their mainstream crossover. 

This week, Circuital came out, and I've probably listened to it twenty times since Tuesday. 

A few stray thoughts about the full album before I dive into the Song of the Week:

1) I'm dying to know what other people (casual fans, diehards, and nonfans alike) think of Circuital.  I immediately liked it--a lot--but haven't yet fallen in love with it.  Anyone in love with it?

2) When Z and Evil Urges each came out, a lot of reviews called My Morning Jacket "America's Radiohead."  I've never understood that comparison, mostly because "America's Radiohead," if anyone, is clearly Wilco.  To wit:
--Both are bands from the 90's
--Both have evolved greatly through the years
--Both have massive, rabid, tech-savvy fanbases
--Both have experimented with different marketing techniques for their releases
--Both are obsessed with technology's impact on modern art
--Both are hugely popular yet still viewed as critically unassailable

The analogy works, right down to the fact that the British version of a given idiom (here, experimental-yet-still-popular-enough-to-fill-an-arena-rock) is often more commercially successful than the American version.  For some reason, Brits know how to sell albums back to us better than we do.  Mumford vs. Avetts.  Etc, etc. 

Really, My Morning Jacket isn't "America's anyone."  Sure, I hear Radiohead's influence.  I also hear Neil Young, and 60's girl groups, and the Muppets, etc.  But on Circuital?  I hear the Who.  I hear a lot of the Who.  Which brings me to...

3) What I hear the most listening to Circuital is another deeply layered, heavily melodic, organically-produced, ultimately underrated record by another Who-a-phile band: Yield, by Pearl Jam.  My Morning Jacket has always had a lot in common with Pearl Jam, enough that they've made natural tourmates in the past and they share tons of fans.  One week in, I think Circuital is their Yield.  Like Yield, it's full of lovely, understated songwriting.  Like Yield, it highlights a band at the peak of their technical powers; you can members democratically offering their parts, ideas thrown around, improved upon, everyone working with great facility in service of the song.  Like Yield, the songs are stylistically--but not thematically--diverse.  Like Yield, the production is organic and open.  And like Yield, it will satisfy established fans, but might not make new ones.

(I've written at length about Yield in the past.  I claim that it's the most underrated album of the 90's here.)

4) Finally, the early press for Circuital has been mostly glowing.  I've been confused, though, by how many reviews spin this album as a "return to greatness" after the "misstep" of Evil Urges.  The same Evil Urges was almost universally praised when it came out by those same publications and blogs.  In other words, it's (I guess?) nice to see that My Morning Jacket has entered yet another strata.  We'll call it: Artists Whose New Album Is Always Awesome, Until It's the Last Album.

This is also known as "The REM Rule."  It's a time-honored tradition.  Every few years since the mid-to-late 90's, music journalists have declared the New REM Album their "return to glory."  To illustrate this return to glory, they reference an REM "golden age" we universally recognize and cherish, and draw comparisons between this new album and those old albums.  Until the next New REM Album comes out.  Then, they pan the last New REM Album to make the same point about this New REM Album.  There's also the "Ryan Adams Corollary," which is similar, except it harkens back to a golden age that isn't universally recognized or cherished. 

Anyway, those are a few of my immediate reactions to the full album.  Next week, I might feel totally different.  What do y'all think?

Song of the Week: My Morning Jacket, "Circuital"

I first heard this song at a Starbucks in Denver (you were there), biding time until that night's show.  Later, I burned it onto my next road-mix.  It kept me company on the long drive(s) through the heartland.  It joined me one bleary-eyed morning setting out for Omaha.  It played on repeat one late night in Kansas, driving through a thunderstorm.  It's a song about things coming full circle, and it soundtracked my own circuitous route home.  But all of that came later.

I first heard this song at a Starbucks in Denver, a little tired, a little homesick, and a little lost.  I was one of many people on an island with their earbuds and coffee and tiny table.  Then I heard Jim James, my old friend, absent a few years.  His falsetto soared.  He dreamily sung about returning to "childhood ways."  Suddenly, golden acoustic guitars strummed, recalling something timeless yet brand new (1:10).  The next time they returned, Who-esque powerchords (2:00) joined them, propelling the song into a new, anthemic section.  And suddenly I was a tired, homesick wreck in the middle of a Starbucks in Denver.  I won't lie to you: this song got real for me.  Its second minute is simply special--inspired, perfectly executed, and flat-out gorgeous.  And in that moment, it did exactly what it's supposed to do: it called me back home.  Bigtime.

Of course, I could go on and on about all the ways the music of this song enacts the "circular" themes of the lyrics (e.g., it ends exactly the way it began, etc.).  And I could type endlessly about the production of the song (i.e., how amazing the band sounds).  And I could ramble about Carl's wonderfully side-winding lead parts in the song's second half.  I could pick a dozen different technical things this band does amazingly well, things that set them apart from so many other bands.  But I picked "Circuital" because it has the rarest of things: a little bit of magic.

I'm still listening to the rest of Circuital over and over again, looking for more magic.  I haven't heard it yet, but that's why I'm always craving the next MMJ song: they've got it in them.

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