A Bible Story
As longtime leader of My Morning Jacket, Jim James has hardly been stultified by style, convention, or genre; his band long ago progress from backwoods harmonists camped out in a Kentucky grain-solo to festival-headlining jam-band given the freedom to freewheel through funk, soul, psychedelia, synth-pop, reggae, and whatever other whims may suffice. James, then, wouldn't seem to —unlike so many solo-project-starting singers before him— need the vehicle of a solo venture to deliver him unto new musical pastures; in My Morning Jacket, he can point that vessel wherever he wishes.
Yet, Regions of Light and Sound of God, the first-ever solo full-length for the 34-year-old, feels like something that never could've quite been made in My Morning Jacket; justifying its existence not via stylistic departure, but by its sustained sense of self. This is an album of cogent theme, present identity, and personal conviction; the kind of passion project that stands at odds with the between-albums, thrown-together quality of so many similar sidelines.
And, like any good personal passion project, James' solo LP has a back-story at its beginnings. The genesis narrative goes thus: after a 2008 fall from a stage in Iowa City, James is hospitalized, struggles with the trauma, then recuperates with the love of a good woman. He's handed a copy of Lynd Ward's wordless 1929 novel-in-woodcuts, God's Man, and sees his own life reflected back in its monochromatic images; in its tale of an artist's fall from grace, and pact with a devil.
Inspired, James takes to his home studio, and begins recording a 'soundtrack' to God's Man. Or, at least, its themes —y'know: life, love, devotion, religion, art, suffering, transcendence, death; all the big ones— when viewed through the prism of his own experience. Though the novel is an ascetic work of Depression-era symbolism that carries the weight of biblical parable, when 'scoring' its woodcut images James, somehow, erupts in a host of fully-formed songs that riff on '70s soul, synthy retrofuturism, and Gospel grandeur; making an album that harkens forward and back in time, in some kind of dreams-from-a-distant-future way. It's the most thematically focused thing James has even done; a solo album that more than justifies its own existence, but feels like it only could've existed unto itself.
A New Life
This is the fantastic creation narrative behind Regions of Light and Sound of God, one that backs up to evocative, definitely poetic, and possibly boastful title. The only question, then, is whether the actual listening to the album is as good as reading about it. The answer is, largely, yes; or, perhaps, a more qualified 'not quite.' Either way, it's not a great piece of biography shilling a failed concept album; but a fascinating, committed work from an artist whose rock'n'roll dayjob feels far more like frolicking —sometimes frustratingly— through genre.
Save for the orchestral parts, James plays all the instruments on the LP; sings in a voice that is both familiar as his yet defiantly different from its normal register; and, finally, does an amazing job as producer, creating a genuine sonic space in which the listener, sits, with the instruments cavorting around them. Playing that Flying V in MMJ, James is playing the role of a rock'n'roll meathead; here, he feels far more like a composer.
The songs are, in their own way, largely headier than My Morning Jacket songs; the loss of the simple act of playing them, together, meaning James goes deeper into artificial soundworlds of his own creation. Sometimes this can be a curse —Regions of Light and Sound of God isn't exactly filled with toe-tappers— but, most of the time, it's a blessing. Cuts like "Know Til Now" and "All Is Forgiven" are astonishing tonal pieces; all thick decay of vintage synths, wafting ambience, heavy surface noise, and jazzy stings; riffing on Americana and exotic Middle Easternism, each, as they explore different notions of spirituality.
God is constantly in the conversation ("son of man/was born in Bethlehem/called God," begins "All Is Forgiven"), but, mostly, these songs are less about faith in a biblical sense, more faith in another; devotionals not to a deity, but to a lover. On an album filled with sweeping strings and soul music stings, its clearest, most concise, most utterly sincere moment is a ballad called "A New Life," that starts off stripped-down, and ends up Elvis.
"Babe, let's get one thing clear/there's much more stardust when you're near," James enunciates clearly, with conviction; the song's title missing its completing half "...with you." Later, when he sings "whether or not it's true/I believe in the concept of you," the themes are underlined. Where My Morning Jacket's lyrics can sometimes feel incidental, almost tossed-off, here they are direct, and beautiful; this love James sings off the driving force on a daffy, endearing concept album that feels like the best thing he's done in years.
Release Date: February 5, 2013