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Jim James, ‘Regions of Light and Sound of God’ (ATO)

Jim James / Photo by Brian Killian/Getty
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 05, 2013
Label: ATO

Enter the mystic. Your guide will be My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, who dials down his main gig’s arena-rocking sound for the more modest, mostly one-man-band sketches of this intriguingly odd, portentously titled, Christianity-slanted solo set.

As with every voyage into the beyond, we begin this spirit quest with a rejection of worldly ways, which in “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)” involves quoting the death-trip lullaby “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and questioning technology’s human value. With morality on his mind, James includes an X-ray of his own skull inside the gatefold; he fell offstage in 2008, conking his head righteously, and this real calamity, plus a romantic fail (see “Actress”), and his subsequent spiritual and/or emotional redemption (see nearly everything else here), provides part of Regions of Light and Sound of God‘s backstory. Much of the rest, he maintains, echoes the artistic Faustian bargain recounted in the wordless woodprint images of Lynd Ward’s 1929 book God’s Man, America’s first graphic novel.

Throughout, James conflates secular and sacred love like a Sufi mystic — or Al Green — in soul-inflected stanzas that read like spiritual diary entries. “Know Til Now” contains some stirring strings and takes an unexpected left turn into saxophone-sweet space-funk. He only just barely avoids silliness in the otherwise sublime, doo-wop-tinged “A New Life” when he sings, “I think… I’m really bein’ sincere.” And after a short, palette-cleansing instrumental, he cuts directly to the spiritual chase in tracks like the Gaia-groovin’ “Of the Mother Again”; the Arabia-inflected, Islam-meets-Christianity optimism of “All Is Forgiven”; and the Martin Luther King-quoting “God’s Love to Deliver,” which borrows the name of a non-sectarian food-delivery service (and a melody reminiscent of Bowie’s “Prettiest Star”) to waltz through lyrics about how a love that was “all theater” transformed into a special relationship with “the lamb.”

One takes solace where one finds it. But the monster of folk’s slow-jamming, white-suited funk would seem fresher and riskier (at least in this godless era) if Matthew E. White, another Southerner with that old-time religion/romance on his mind, hadn’t carved out similar turf on last year’s equally ambitious and somewhat superior Big Inner. Perhaps it’s better to consider Regions of Light as James’ expanded tribute to the six-string spirituality of George Harrison, whose essential sweetness inspired his 2010 covers EP, Tribute To. If the darker aspects of success send you seeking a higher power, a Beatle’s never a bad place to start.