Jim James's Regions of Light and Sound of God is full of trancey reverb and lyrics that fixate on various forms of devotion. Half the guitars and all the voice of My Morning Jacket, James has crafted an album that partakes in MMJ's operatic strokes and cranked-up bass, but it's a much sparser affair that fronts atmosphere ahead of lyrics—one reason, perhaps, why James delivers his lines with more than his usual instinct for rhythmic surprise. The album is a loose, meditative song cycle about regret, religion, and romance. If the title seems ripped from either Mahavishnu Orchestra or Sigur Rós, that's because James has given his ever-lurking mystical impulses free rein here. It sometimes feels too much like a church service—periods of edifying boredom punctuated here and there by a great melody. But James finds his own salvation in the low register, with a rugged drum-and-bass foundation under nearly every song. More interesting is that the singer himself is playing drum and bass, not to mention guitars, organs, synthesizers—really everything except for the occasional non-synth string-quartet line. When James goes solo, he means it.
As ever, James's musical imagination is a restive one, and the tunes on Regions of Light draw on various influences. "Know Til Now" opens like Sigur Rós, but soon locks into a syncopated backbeat more characteristic of the rest of the album, touched with synth horns and an unexpected bari sax, while the staticky trance of "Dear One" incorporates a second-line, New Orleans-style rhythm that squares with the album's occasionally funereal tone. On "Of the Mother Again," James picks some Stax-style six-string under a second, cascading upper-register guitar while doubling his voice in the David Longstreth mode. "Actress," meanwhile, is pure John Lennon, beginning with a string octet and ending with reverbed, melodic vowel extensions that recall Plastic Ono Band.
There's a certain variety to the approach here, but it coheres for the most part on James's insistently tuneful interrogation of himself. He remains a smart commentator on the voyeuristic elements of attraction: "You're good at making everyone believe that they love you," he sings on "Actress," and it's less a gripe than a concerned observation. Similarly voyeuristic second-person songwriting is an MMJ staple (cf. "Librarian" off 2008's Evil Urges), but given that Regions of Light was apparently inspired by an early-20th-century book of devotional etchings, the deity is bound to get a nod or two. Thank heaven, then, that when phrases like "All is forgiven" pass James's lips, it sounds more like a question than an affirmation. The singer of Regions of Light is less concerned with God than with man (and with God only insofar as he, you know, controls—or doesn't!—the fortunes of Earth); as a result, it's the romance-tinged, earthbound songs that ring truest. Some of the atmosphere-heavy tunes sound incomplete rather than provocatively opaque, or however else one might justify them. But the album's basslines have been to the gym, and James, though he fashions himself as a visionary, is sufficiently grounded in both music and theme to put the thing across.