To begin working on their latest album, Circuital, My Morning Jacket returned to their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and set up shop in a church gymnasium. Their intent at first was to begin doing demos for what would eventually become the album. But then, something happened: A honey-coated moment of magic presented itself before the band.
As MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan recalled, as we spoke via phone just before the Thanksgiving holiday, “We didn’t really go back home to record the album. We set up in that space to record demos. [The demos] ended up happening the way we wanted them to sound, and before we knew it, we were making the album. It kind of came about on its own, at its own will. When you’re presented with opportunities like that, you have to take them.”
The band opted to record the tracks on Circuital as live takes, a decision that Hallahan said required all of the members of MMJ to “be on the same page, whether they like it or not.” The first song they began to work on for the album was “Slow, Slow Tune.” “That was the song we started with,” he said, “and just the sound in that room, everybody just felt that we should continue on in that space and see where it takes us. It ended up being this amazing self-journey for everyone, in this sort of old gymnasium.”
It is fitting that “Slow, Slow Tune” was the first track the band began to work on for Circuital. The song has sparse foundation, which becomes accented with the big and bold guitar parts that are signature to the MMJ sound. In fact, Circuital largely capitalizes on MMJ’s strengths, and is an album that revisits the unique sound they presented on their 2003 album, It Still Moves—a landmark mixture of grunge, southern influence and epic explosiveness that left stereo speakers sizzling in its wake.
Their release prior to Circuital, 2008’s Evil Urges, was recorded in a professional studio in New York City, and had an urban sound that incorporated many funk and R&B overtones; imagine updated variations of a song like “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones, and that was Evil Urges in a nutshell. But the music seemed forced, save for a few tracks, and for what it is worth, the album was an interesting, if not an admirable, failure in experimentation. Circuital, by comparison, is subtler than It Still Moves, but as it progresses over its 45-minute length, the experimentation is kept practical, while the meat of the album projects the pure MMJ style that is often duplicated by other bands, yet never genuinely conveyed with the spirit that MMJ projects naturally.
Hallahan and singer Jim James have known each other since the fourth grade, and between the two, their synergy is undeniably kindred. So, perhaps more than any other member of MMJ, Hallahan would be the best person to ask about where James is coming from as the band’s principal lyricist. Many of the themes on Circuital seem to be influenced by the progress of modern living, and one’s own personal evaluation of life as a series of cycles.
“There’s a fine line when it comes to defining lyrics” said Hallahan. “Because, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t write the lyrics, so I’m still deriving my own definitions of them. I guess they’re kind of a look at life cycles, through the mind of a mid-30s person. That’s quite a bit of time to have lived some life—with still a lot of time left to live life—and I guess this, like any other album, is lyrically where Jim is at the moment.”
One of the tracks on Circuital that seems to be the most reflective from a lyrical standpoint is the funny and refreshing “Holdin’ On To Black Metal,” which is a tribute to one’s days of youth spent listening to heavy metal music, when the world is only as big as a young teenager can imagine. The lyrics are a reflection on yesterday, as James sings, “It’s a darkness you can’t deny/ But it don’t belong in a grown up mind/ Suppose you’ll find this place in a youngster’s eyes…/ Oh, black metal, you’re so misunderstood.”
“It’s sort of an ode to holding on to your youth,” says Hallahan, “but I know there’s still a lot of metalheads that consider metal the predominant musical choice, so we try to not alienate the metalheads of the world by calling that music “youthful,” you know? Because I still listen to a lot of that music today.”
When My Morning Jacket first arrived on the scene, they were unique to the point of grand intrigue for many people, and over the years, they have always made records that have a context that reflects the time and place where they are. They’ve built up a reputation for being premiere performers, and everyone from Pearl Jam to Metallica has sung their praises. Personally speaking, they’ve been the only band in recent memory that can record tender acoustic love songs, and then go out on tour with the Foo Fighters—giving Dave Grohl and company a run for their money. It’s a great testament to My Morning Jacket’s commitment to the music, and they are humble and appreciative about the success they have achieved thus far.
“You just do what you know,” says Hallahan. “You write what you think about and you express what you’re feeling. Not saying that our feelings have never changed, but we have a very strong core with this group of people. We have a formula, and though the sounds may change, the core remains.” That core will come to our area this month as the tour for Circuital comes to Madison Square Garden. With a brand new album and a great sense of excitement surrounding their latest material, the show will undoubtedly be an all-out rock and roll experience that should not be missed for any reason.
My Morning Jacket will play Madison Square Garden on Dec. 14. For more information, go to mymorningjacket.com.