Jim James seeks to pin down his identity.
On new solo release Uniform Distortion, My Morning Jacket front man Jim James seeks to pin down his identity. The album cover, a twisted version of Duane Michals’ piece “The Illuminated Man,” suggests that sometimes throwing more light on a subject only makes it harder to see. James writes in response to an age of not only information overload, but of bent information. As he tries to disconnect and take a deep breath, his new album barrels forward with a welcome. Whether he’s a fool or a throwback, someone behind or ahead of the times, he plays with a revivalist’s attitude, scrounging ‘70s rock for a comment on the right now.
In a sense, the album’s concept necessitates a song called “Throwback.” James and his guitar sound jaunty, but as he looks back at old pictures in a social media feed, he blends nostalgia with a recognition of diminishing potential. “Watch your face grow younger as real time runs out,” he sings. “Oh, all the potential in the world/ When we were young.” Rather than giving into midlife dismay (not that James is old enough for that), he laughs it off and finds the optimism to trust that that potential is “still living now.” The song’s encouragement overcomes its warning, but the two work together.
That laughter returns at the start of the churning “Yes to Everything.” James sounds a bit manic, not only here but across the album. He’s got an urgent message, and on this track, it ties to his desire to be more adventurous. The question arises: can he just choose to do what he wants to? He also suggests that he might be crazy. Like most of the disc, this is the sound of someone trying to break free from the deadening effects of contemporary life, of screen-fixation and aging ennui.
That sound rarely relaxes. “You Get to Rome” creates a bit of a mess, but it maintains a high-speed ’70s sound, the guitar hook echoing the horn line from the Who’s “5:15.” Rome might be about as old a city as James can get to, but he’s still looking forward. The song stirs up energy for a renewed drive. “No Use Waiting” proves that James can’t sit still. He charts a new course constantly, looking at his old self, those around him, and just moving forward. This song slows the tempo just a bit, but only so that James can launch again in a new direction, traveling Jimmy full throttle.
Through all this running, the song structures stay simple. Uniform Distortion doesn’t offer experimentation or the sounds of the future (Crazy Horse remains the inevitable touchpoint). James sounds like a digital folkie; he’s using the studio and fiddling with his cell phone, but looking for clean melodies and comfortable chord progressions to present a direct message. When the album isn’t trying to crack open a new, unwired human, it settles into its fixtures (as on “Too Good to Be True”). James thrives in this sort of environment (see also his work on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.
His authoritative bit of self-analysis comes on the album’s best track, opener “Just a Fool.” The retro crank of the opening guitar clarifies the plan: be loud, be exciting, put down your stuff. James describes himself as a musician, just confused and stumbling through life, and the bounce of the song supports that initial idea. James shifts the tone subtly, though, revealing frustration and anger in an ambiguous place. While his lyrics here stick to the “fool getting by,” the track foreshadows resistance. On a second listen, it sounds like both the identification of an artist and the prologue for the movement to come, and there’s nothing foolish about that.