By Ryan Leas
My Morning Jacket has always had a penchant for stunning first tracks, the sort of first songs that simultaneously function as gutsy opening salvos and markers that set the stage for what’s to come. On the band’s sixth album, “Circuital,” the foreboding “Victory Dance”upholds the tradition, a slow-building song that paints the otherworldly portrait of a campfire ritual until it unravels into its chaotic, shambolic conclusion. Though much of the rest of “Circuital” is a bit lighter and less sinister than “Victory Dance,” the album is similarly spacey and hard to pin down.
As an opening track, it also clarifies that “Circuital” is not exactly the album it was hyped up to be. In the lead-up to its release, many discussed the album as My Morning Jacket’s “return to form,” citing the album’s title to describe a supposed circular nature to the arc between their early albums and their newest effort. It’s not a very accurate approach; as with any My Morning Jacket release, especially since “Z,” “Circuital” is an amalgamation of many different emotions, sounds, and genres. True, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is a country ballad that could have fit nicely alongside “Golden” on 2003’s “It Still Moves,” and the very appropriately titled “Slow Slow Tune” could have appeared in some form on any of the three albums preceding “Circuital.” But what the band truly does on “Circuital” is effortlessly fuse all of their past detours while pushing themselves forward.
“Circuital” feels like more of a follow-up to 2005’s “Z” than 2008’s “Evil Urges.” The presence of the latter is indeed felt, as the rampant experimentation of “Evil Urges” is streamlined here, incorporated in a way that augments crazy surprises like “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” rather than weaken the strength of the songs. But “Z” was the band’s first full-fledged psychedelic outing, and “Circuital” picks up on that strain, sounding like Jim James has been writing soul songs in a spaceship with shimmering tracks like “The Day Is Coming” standing out as album highlights. Another key track, “Outta My System,” is trippy, twangy, and muscular all at the same time, blending My Morning Jacket’s rock, country and psychedelic soul proclivities into one immaculate three-and-a-half minute song.
And then, of course, there’s “Holdin’ on to Black Metal.” Easily the most shocking of any of My Morning Jacket’s past lead singles, the song gives the “Evil Urges” track “Highly Suspicious” a serious run for its money for the honor of being the weirdest, most unexpected song the band has cut to date. Built on samples from a Thai pop song, the song features James’ falsetto suggestions to “Catch your waves on Lucifer’s beach” amidst wah-wah-laden horns and a chorus of female backing vocals. It’s bizarre, it’s hilarious, and it’s also an awesome rock song; in other words, it’s a quintessential My Morning Jacket moment and will surely be a show-stopper on this summer’s tour.
Not everything on “Circuital” is out of leftfield, however. The epic, multi-part title track’s rollicking classic rock vibe feels right at home with many of the band’s older material, just as the aforementioned plaintive country of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is vintage My Morning Jacket. Other songs, like the gorgeous “You Wanna Freak Out,” feel like a subtler progression than shockers like “Holdin’ On to Black Metal,” its acoustic balladry both in line with the band’s typical sonic palette but also unique and not quite like anything My Morning Jacket’s recorded before.
Unlike some of My Morning Jacket’s other albums, the scattershot “Evil Urges” being the primary offender, “Circuital” is tightly honed and controlled, their shortest and, perhaps besides “Z”, their most focused effort. That extra bit of effort pays off, as the album feels packed with instant MMJ classics. James continues to lead his band farther and farther from their rootsy origins but maintains an incredibly high standard of songwriting. The band’s journey has been stunning so far, towing the line between boundary-pushing experimentation and the strong compositional quality of their music. “Circuital” may not be exactly what it was rumored to be — then again, what My Morning Jacket release is? — but it is yet another incredibly strong installment in the growing legacy of one of the most interesting contemporary American bands.