Some musicians just can’t restrain themselves to one mode of expression. Jim James seems to have absolute freedom to be as innovative as he wants as the front man, songwriter and guitarist of the genre-bending alternative-roots-rock-jam-band My Morning Jacket. Yet he wanders. Last year he went retro Americana with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and before that he formed a sort of folk-rock super group called Monsters of Folk, without ever disbanding his main band.
In 2009, James first explored solo territory with an EP under the playful pseudonym Yim Yames that consisted entirely of George Harrison covers. It turns out that the former Beatle’s trippy innovation and spiritually meandering psychedelia serves as a perfect reference point for Regions of Light and Sound of God, James’ solo, full-length debut. Harrison serves as an emotional, if not theological, mentor to James as he continues in the late artist’s footsteps. Like Harrison, James is proving that when left to one’s own devices and removed from the confines (and discipline) of a band, some artists can get really weird - and cool.
Besides the vocals, Regions of Light and Sound of God sounds not a thing like Jacket, Monsters or even James’ previous solo work. Fortunately for everyone, James’ connection to his day band is still strong; this solo adventure is not about building what’s next or staying the course after a bloody break-up. This is truly an exercise in individual exploration and risk. James plays nearly every instrument and writes every song. The tunes unfold like the impressionistic paintings of a child monk. James’ falsetto rides atop a bed of twisting musical arrangements as he sings blatantly spiritual and occasionally Christian songs. He dabbles in ’60s rock, LSD-era folk, R&B funk and Pet Sound-era Beach Boys pop, realizing a level of artistic excellence that should further burnish his reputation as one of the most thoughtful artists of the last decade.
The title of the record comes from a 1929 graphic novel by Lynd Ward that examines the story of an artist who becomes consumed by the pursuit of money and fame, but eventually finds his way back to his faith. James’ songs ring like abstract reflections of an ambient pilgrim, digital samples of woodcut panels filtered through a post-rock catechism. There are plenty of words and phrases that will stand out to Christians, but the context is more of a seeker than a finder. Boil it all down and you’re left with the sense that James seems to value the pursuit of God more than any particular certainty about who that God is or what He really wants from His followers. The album closes with a densely layered waltz that starts with a consideration of Martin Luther King’s populist call to love our neighbors and ends with a cryptic meditation on the beauty of community … maybe?
In the end, this is simply one of the most interesting and oblique records of this young year. James’ convincing abilities as an impressionist and his obvious interest in the echoes of meaning that reverberate from images of faith and devotion are fascinating and satisfying. It may take a few spins for fans of My Morning Jacket to warm to these songs, but it’s worth the effort.