It is no coincidence that Eternally Even was released shortly before Election Day, so it’s easy—and not entirely untrue—to say that this is Jim James’s most topical work yet. That, on the other hand, does everyone a disservice. For a songwriter who has built his career’s work in a realm beyond language (we are referring to a man who wrote a song called “Wordless Chorus”), this album feels like a move toward the explicit rather than the implicit, albeit only slightly. Even with the album’s more explicit political task in mind, it never feels intrusively literal. This is still James we are talking about.
For a long time, it seemed almost inconceivable that James, the frontman of My Morning Jacket, would make a solo album. My Morning Jacket’s Tennessee Fire came out in 1999, and it was 14 years until James released his solo debut, Regions Of Light And Sound Of God. My Morning Jacket has made excursions into folk, psychedelic, and everything in between, but at its heart it is still a rock band. The band has an eclectic taste, but it was easy to underestimate James’s holistically differing tastes. His projects with Monsters of Folk, a collaboration with Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and M. Ward, and the New Basement Tapes demonstrate a stunning versatility, the former an experiment with what one might call electro-folk, and the latter a project that put music to Bob Dylan’s famed basement tape lyrics from the late ’60s.
What has become even more apparent on Eternally Even is James’s love of soul, and this love subtly informs each track. By no means is the album a throwback, but on songs such as “The World’s Smiling Now” and “True Nature,” the influence of soul is clear. Horns and strings grace the album in beautiful textures and add a similar ethereal openness that pervaded Regions.
“Even some of our great heroes like Neil Young and Bob Dylan project a lot of darkness … But then you listen to Curtis Mayfield or Stevie Wonder or Bruce Springsteen and you see these brilliant artists projecting hope,” James said in a 2013 Rolling Stone interview.
There is no doubt he has gravitated toward Mayfield and Wonder’s territory, as strange as that may seem. In what could be a dark record about the current political climate, filled with pessimism, James stays levelheaded.
On “Here in Spirit,” James sings, “No compromise / But willing to sacrifice / Go on be who you are,” and it is here where the political and the personal merge. One could extrapolate these lines as much as he or she wants to, but, “The stone is thrown / It’s a common fact.” While not the title track, the essence of the album seems to be contained within this song. None of the songs make grand, sweeping statements—that’s never been James’s style. Particularly, “Here in Spirit” is more indicative of finding a way of peace between one’s inner life and the world at large rather than grappling with an oversized universal struggle.
Another pleasant surprise on this record is a different presentation of James’s voice, which has always been otherworldly in My Morning Jacket, a faraway voice drenched in reverb. More forward in the mix, his voice is just close enough to us on Eternally Even that there is a sense of connectedness. If James’s vocal production could be likened to Ziggy Stardust before, we now have a James that is more along the lines of David Bowie on Lodger. It’s not that we didn’t believe James before, but he talks about the extraordinary in ordinary terms, and it’s quite the treat.
On the closing title track, a somber organ begins the track. It is shortly followed by a dreamy vocal. “Ooh, sun’s out but not a thought about the rain / No trace of tears or pain,” James sings. Like Victoria LeGrand of Beach House, James achieves a soul-penetrating tenderness by pairing two seemingly opposed concepts, singing with both detachment and intensity. When James sings, “I hope you have a wonderful life,” it’s bittersweet. It’s real. We have no choice but to hope that, too.
Featured Image By Capitol Records