My Morning Jacket's Jim James Is Still Searching for Transcendence | Phoenix New Times

My Morning Jacket's Jim James Is Still Searching for Transcendence

Jim James gets spiritual on his new record.

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In 1979, a group of brothers and cousins (and an unrelated guitarist) from the Witness of Jesus Christ
church in Fresno, California, recorded an album as the Supreme Jubilees.

Self-released in 1980, the record weds funk and disco grooves to end-of-days testifying. On the title track, “It’ll All Be Over,” the combo interweaves its voices in harmony over a mournful electric piano. Inspired by a spiritual encounter by group leader Leonard Sanders in his dreams, the song forecasts a day when all pain and suffering ceases. It’s beautiful, but also apocalyptic.

On Eternally Even, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James samples “It’ll All Be Over.” His song’s called “The World’s Smiling Now,” and like the rest of of the album, it builds on the apocalyptic themes of Sanders’ song. His second proper solo album, Eternally Even is James’ most political statement since emerging from the Louisville, Kentucky, indie rock scene in the late 1990s. Concerned with the gathering clouds of a Trump presidency, it’s also his darkest. Scan the lyric book, and you’ll find “hate crimes” and “shelter lines,” “tears,” and “the pain.”

In some ways, it picks up where his first full-length solo outing, 2013’s Regions of Light and Sound of God, left off, exploring theological terrain. James positions himself as a seeker. He’s practiced transcendental meditation since 2009, and he has long incorporated Christianity and Zen musings into his lyrics. But where his songs have often achieved an easy spiritual take-off, his latest dwells on eschatological matters. The end, James seems to sing over and over again, is nigh.

On “Same Old Lie,” he asks, “Is there any peace to be found in a lifetime?” It’s a bracing statement from James, usually packing a certain Aquarian sweetness in his songs with My Morning Jacket. And while there’s hope lingering on the edges of these songs too, the LP finds him confronting greed and the lingering threat of destruction with bleak, spooky language. “You can talk about it all you want / But what the fuck you’re gonna do / Time’s your oyster / The grave is always getting closer,” he promises on “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Pt. 2.” 
Working with producer Blake Mills, known for his work on Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, James crafts an instrumental template suitable to his dark night of the soul outlook. It’s funky in a subdued way, owing to lethargic trip-hop and spooky mid-’70s R&B — think Bill Withers or Shuggie Otis chopped and screwed. Initially known for reverb-drenched southern rock and cosmic Americana, James embraces the same psychedelic soul that informed My Morning Jacket’s 2015 The Waterfall. The drums and bass boom, the strings and synths rise, and James treats his voice like it’s plugged into an array of effects pedals, deploying distortion, pitch-shifting, and echo to create a multilayered tapestry of sounds.

The sumptuousness conjured up by James and Mills provides much of the redemption James resists providing lyrically. (The bass on “In the Moment” begs to be isolated for a YouTube video and studied.) But even as he reflects on “guns, blood, and sorrow,” James keeps the search up for moments of reflection and transcendence. He finds some of it in the closing song, the title track, where he duets with Kentucky’s Joan Shelly singing, “Walking in the shadows, I see clearly / I’m walking in the light.”

The dark and the light co-mingle in apocalyptic literature, the promise of deliverance after tribulation. So do they mingle in James’ songs, which dwell in the spaces “before the beginning and after the end,” as he sings on “True Nature.” This is James’ best solo album yet and perhaps his best work overall since My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves. As expectant of the alpha as the omega, Eternally Even illustrates that even if the end’s inevitable, there are eternities to be experienced hiding in individual moments.

Jim James is scheduled to perform Sunday, December 11, at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe.
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