Released just four days before Election Day last November, Jim James’ latest solo album anticipates in many ways the division and controversy that followed the electoral tally. On the first two tracks alone, James wonders, “What if the world became sweet again?” and reminds listeners that “You can’t build love out of guns, blood, and sorrow.” “Eternally Even,” though in no way an overtly political album, carries a message and a sound that is sorely needed in the Trump era.
James, of course, is best known as the frontman for My Morning Jacket, a band that has been around for nearly 20 years. Built as much on James’ ethereal vocals as its chiming guitars, the band has found success with its unique sound, which may cause many to wonder why James is making solo albums in the first place. (“Eternally Even” is only the second full-length album James has recorded.) Conversely, it seems likely that many who come to James’ album will do so because of his work in My Morning Jacket, so he is put in the potentially divisive position of having to remind listeners of why they like him while justifying the effort to strike out on his own. (Not unlike, say, a presidential candidate!)
Luckily, James strikes a balance here. The first few songs on the album indeed veer widely from My Morning Jacket’s signature sound, and James himself plays most of the instruments. The record opens with “Hide in Plain Sight,” an anthem that begins with a grinding guitar drone set to a persistent beat. James’ philosophical musings, which are highlighted in nearly every song, are muffled here. The overall sound is radically different from My Morning Jacket and initially off-putting.
There’s a distinct ’60s vibe to the lyrics of “Same Old Lie” (quoted above), and the music here gradually segues into a kind of drum-circle-and-synth coda, establishing a contemplative kind of groove. Though many solo albums begin with a bang, as if to announce the rebirth of the singer, James establishes a slow, almost dreary, pace in the opening of this album. Though the lyrics are intriguing, I found myself growing impatient.
One of the more pleasant contrasts with My Morning Jacket comes from the backing lyrics of Shungudzo Kuyimba, who sings on many of the songs here. Female vocals are seldom heard in My Morning Jacket, and Kuyimba’s voice fits nicely with James’ without drowning his distinctive vocal mannerisms. The overlapping vocals of both singers are a highlight of “Here in Spirit,” as are the production manipulations of the keyboards and the beat, other sounds that are rarely heard in My Morning Jacket.
After this opening trilogy of songs, the album settles into sonic territory that may be more familiar and comforting to My Morning Jacket fans. But James does not simply recreate the band’s style, though many of the songs on this album have an immersive, enveloping sound. “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger,” for example, which comes at the midpoint of the album, has a strong Pink Floyd vibe, particularly in its bass rhythm, and the instrumental begins with a mesmerizing keyboard loop that leads into a mid-tempo beat. James plays the organ on this number, and the overall sound is ideal for headphones. Belying the hypnotic drone of the music is James’ admonishment to a complacent audience: “This world is war and blood,” he sighs, “when it could have been love.” It’s not necessarily the kind of message you want to hear at, say, an outdoor festival, but the music may lull you into a kind of aural complacency while rejecting that attitude in the listener’s politics.
Nostalgic echoes are also found in the next two songs. “True Nature” incorporates all kinds of elements, including live sax and synth horns, merging them into a layered, engaging homage to ’70s rhythm and blues. “In the Moment,” with its bass slapping, tubular bells, and muted synth trumpet, sounds like a improvisational cover of “Gold Dust Woman” by Herbie Hancock (in a good way).
The album closes with the title track, which sounds like My Morning Jacket with synthesizers in place of that band’s distinctive guitars. James strikes a contemplative mood, reflecting on his journey so far: “There’s gold in growing older,” he sings. “Life’s been completely fair.” Whatever the results of the election will bring us in the months to come, Jim James offers a perfect companion for late night contemplation with this album. It’s one to listen to with the front door open, accompanied by the hum of insects in the night. Turn off your news alerts and let this one take you away.