With a title like Region of Light and Sound of God, you can tell that the debut solo album from My Morning Jacket‘s perpetual maximalist Jim James hasn’t narrowed his sights. The album, self-produced and performed, sounds much like its cover looks – a ruggedly dapper man, paling in the wake of a pulsating world of neon that he doesn’t seem to understand. It’s that left hand that’s the clincher – is it stroking his beard in confusion, or lighting up a cigarette and taking it all in? Either way, from the artwork alone, it’s easy to tell that James is going to be tackling some Big Issues here.
It begins with what sounds like the heavens opening: a wash of rainfall, celestial harps and booming timpani. But then, ‘State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)”s muted, one-chord piano vamp kicks in, and refuses to stop. James has got the world-weariness of a vintage bluesman on his shoulders, but instead of asking where his baby went, he’s wondering if the technology he’s referring to in the title is having a negative effect on modern life. A tired theme, perhaps, but he’s got enough of a spin on it to make the lyric interesting. And when the song stutters to its climax the microphone fizzles to a halt, just as he sings “I think the power’s goin’ out”. In the wrong hands, it would be little more than a clever-clever way end to the song, but James exercises enough restraint with his production to prevent it from ever sounding smug.
The album creates its own world in much the same way as one-time collaborator Conor Oberst did on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn; however, while Oberst used that Bright Eyes album to air his personal demons and social disconnection, James is simply working out What It’s All About on a much grander scale. “Sweet relief to know our effort pleases Him”, James sings on ‘Of the Mother Again’, echoing the kind of spiritual sentiments last seen emerging from the mind of Kurt Wagner, or even George Harrison (whose songs James has more than ably covered in the past). Even when James does seem to turn his aim to more specific targets, as on the soulful ‘Actress’, you know that when he sings “Whether or not it’s true, I believe in the concept of you” his thoughts are probably directed at something a little more significant than some starlet or other.
That’s not to say there’s a lack of humour to be found here. When, on lead single ‘A New Life’, he insists “I think I’m really being sincere…” – first with just an acoustic guitar for company, then repeating the song’s one verse over a the kind of bouncing beat that Busby Berkeley could have choreographed hundreds to – it’s a hair-raising moment. Meta, yes, but not without substance (we’re looking at you, Christopher Owens), the song plays up to his repeated admiration for the music of the Muppets – cartoonish and classic-sounding all at once – and when he hollers his way to the song’s close, it makes for one of the most uplifting things you’re likely to hear in 2013. Meanwhile, the palate-cleansing instrumental ‘Exploding’ may not live up to its title, but its deft finger-picking, sweeping strings and I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Nels-Cline twittering lead guitar makes for a perfect soundtrack for deep contemplation.
There’s little in James’ catalogue that hints at the stylistic journey he undertakes here; the closest comparison one can make is to the ‘Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)‘, the sultry opening track from his Monsters of Folk project. There, he adopts his trademark falsetto to ask some of life’s big questions (“Why do we suffer?”) over a low-key soul beat. However, he needed the help of his fellow Monsters M. Ward and Conor Oberst to ram the point home. On Regions of Light…, James is alone in the wilderness, singing hymns to himself. Regions of Light and Sound of God is as succinct as he’s ever been on record, and while it doesn’t exactly live up to its grandiose title, it’s a fascinating musical backroad to find yourself stranded in.