Jim James picked a pretty lofty title for his first solo LP. But after a dozen listens or so, I can say in confidence that he has every reason to do so. He’s led Kentucky psych-rock band My Morning Jacket for almost 15 years, releasing six studio albums and a dozen or so EPs (their 2005 LP Z and 2008 LP Evil Urges made KEXP’s top 10 best records of their respective years). Even the worst My Morning Jacket records will blow your mind by their insane complexity and James’ unmistakably powerful voice. In 2007, he joined Calexico in the film I’m Not There to cover Bob Dylan’s “Goin To Acapulco” in one of the best scenes of the movie. In 2009, he dropped a charity EP under the name Yim Yames covering six tunes by George Harrison. Stripped down to the bone but buried under endless reverb, the short Tribute To… was well received and well loved by everyone who managed to find it in the “Y” section of the record store. The same year, he joined the supergroup Monsters of Folk and helped pen “Dear God”, a pensive track later sampled by The Roots as “Dear God 2.0″. Long story short, Jim James was already lost somewhere in the heavenly realm he talks about on his new record far before he started writing it. But thankfully for us, he gives us a lighter burden and a more direct path to nirvana with this unbelievable record. Without a doubt, James has set the bar for 2013, and it won’t be an easy record to top.
The divine has never been a subject that Jim James is afraid of talking about. Rather, his endless journey of finding something bigger than himself has given us some pretty heavy tunes to mull over in the past. But none of it compares to what we see on Regions. As James has mentioned, the album was influenced by God’s Man, the 1929 graphic novel (of sorts) by Lynd Ward. The book tells the story of an artist struggling to find himself within his craft when he is offered a Faustian bargain by a mysterious stranger that will make him fabulously rich. The spirituality and the battle of artistic integrity seen in God’s Man are both evident on Regions. The album tells a bit of its own story, as James struggles with the world and his craft and yearns for sanctification within his own life. The struggle therein has James asking some pretty intense questions. Biblical phrasing and imagery are sprinkled throughout these tracks. On “A New Life”, James questions his own sincerity like it’s a life-changing question as he asks for the door to be opened to a better life, despite the difficult road ahead. “Of The Mother Again” echoes gospel cries for a promise of sweet relief amongst tribulation. But amongst faith and devotion are doubts, and on “Actress”, James wonders whether or not all of this is just a “heightened emotion”. Later, on “All Is Forgiven”, James asks whether or not this concept has any foundation at all. Quite a lot to think about for 38 minutes of music, but James ties everything together in his epilogue, “God’s Love to Deliver”, which could give you and your friends dinner table conversations for weeks.
As you can probably expect, all of these wonderings and wanderings are soundtracked by an absolutely breathtaking array of inspirations. The sample-driven disco jam of “Know Til Now” sees a side of James that is completely new and unique to Regions. It’s a danceable track that has an addictive groove but still manages to stay lyrically driven and push the story forward. “A New Life” reminisces to the quiet strum of Tribute To… before bounding into a delightful folk rock breakdown. Later, tracks like “Of The Mother Again” and “Actress” echo the old-school My Morning Jacket tonality and groove nature of records like Z, while still giving us something totally new and fresh. In addition, the mixture of styles and sounds gives an other-worldliness to James’ sound that describe Regions using seemingly appropriate lights and sounds. Altogether, it’s a masterpiece.
Regions of Light and Sound of God is out February 5 on ATO. The record is streaming in full on NPR. Jim James will be touring in support of the record in a couple months. He will make a stop in Seattle for the next installment of Little Big Show on May 15 at the Neptune. Tickets go on sale here on January 31.