In 2009, Jim James released an EP of George Harrison covers entitled, Tribute To – his own homage to a musical icon. This album was James’ first project apart from his hugely successful band, My Morning Jacket. Now, after six albums and fifteen years with his band, James has engineered his own debut solo album, taking credit for 90% of the instruments and all of the songwriting.
While James also provides the majority of the songwriting for My Morning Jacket, Regions of Light and Sound of God is undoubtedly his own. James drew inspiration largely from the 1929 woodcuts novel, Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward. The themes of rebirth, temptation and religious symbolism illustrated in this novel are present in Regions but the novel also drew parallels with James’ life at the time he’d discovered it. James related profoundly with the main character’s isolation, injury and his falling in love. James grasped each of the emotions derived from this connection and successfully recreated them into words for his audience. “I want people to feel like the album helps them in some way, ” he has said in regards to Regions, “that it helps them celebrate or helps them mourn or laugh or cry. I just want it to feel useful.”
Regions is a collection of nine cohesive, simplistically composed songs dense with soul and spirituality. James is known for his complex arrangements and guitar driven bombastic energy with My Morning Jacket, but with this album, he embraces a more intimate side. The album has a jazzy and at times even Motown-y subtly to it. It could be a mellow My Morning Jacket from the future, stripped down to showcase James’ predominant talent- his vocals.
On the opener, “State of the Art”, James begins building the cosmic dreamscape immediately, mysteriously crooning, “Now I know you need the dark, just as much as the sun,” alongside the introductory piano. The pace quickens and the song ignites as a funky bassline joins the piano. We continue traveling with James on his soul-searching journey through the psychedelic layers of sound on “Know Til Now” and the glistening keys on the synth-stitched, “Dear One” before arriving at the serene strumming that fittingly accompanies the opening lyrics of the first single from the album, “A New Life”. “Hey, open the door/ I want a new life,” comes James’ plea for revival, and then he declares, “Babe, let’s get one thing clear/ there’s much more stardust when you’re near.” The track begins slowly but the sound layering builds, and the drumming pushes it forward until it flourishes into a triumphant saxophone finale.
The grandeur of the themes constructing this album is palpable in James’ soaring vocals. With the recurring mention of God and a shout out to Martin Luther King Jr., he is aware that he is a part of something greater than himself and this is his recognition of and gratitude for that. Not unlike the late George Harrison- one of his greatest musical inspirations- James not only took a chance at a solo career despite his band’s successes, but he also took a chance in exploring and celebrating spirituality, as it is now a rarity in rock. He took a chance and he succeeded in creating a phenomenal, otherworldly album.
-Amanda “The Bearded Lady” Best