As frontman of My Morning Jacket and collaborator in various Americana side projects, Jim James has made music synonymous with escape: rollicking and dreamy soundscapes, loose themes of nature and spirituality, a voice that nearly curdles with sheer abandon. Eternally Even, his second solo outing, plants him dead-center in the rubble of modern sociopolitical rot—common ground for artists making much of today’s best music, but a strange new world for someone more suited to open plains and yawning superhighways. The result is an album steeped in textures of drone and tones of dismay, with a sort of ramshackle grit tuned to frequencies of urgency and naïveté.
James inherits an everyman activism on Eternally Even from singers like Sly Stone and Bill Withers, conveying messages less clever than immediate. “Hate crimes, shelter lines/They try to take what’s yours and mine,” he sings on lead single “Same Old Lie,” “Is there any peace to be found in a lifetime?” James’s lyrics deal in platitudes, mundane observations, and old dichotomies, between light and dark, young and old; combined with his singsong, rhythmic, and often non-rhyming delivery, they create the disarming aura of a single take, an intimation that this kind of intuitive art and rhetoric is more essential to the political moment than a labored analysis.
If the album’s lyrics are a childlike impression of turmoil, Eternally Even is musically meticulous. Sometimes corroded and minimal, sometimes fascinatingly warped, the music is a vivid interpretation of a broken system, or of a system breaking. The album opens and closes with songs—“Hide in Plain Sight” and “Eternally Even,” respectively—that combine skittering percussion and grinding organ loops, while the two parts of “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger” revive the flow of “Hide in Plain Sight” at double time, adding additional paranoia. “Same Old Lie” rides a similarly dark carnival-esque groove until the outro, when a distorted organ and banging conga drums conjure up an unsettling, eerily militant atmosphere. The grainy automation of these tracks grows identifiable by the end of the album, which is eerie given how eccentric it initially feels.
Other songs on Eternally Even slide nicely into James’s comfort zone of psychedelic armchair R&B, yet he works deliberately as a producer to disturb their familiarity. Certain disruptive flourishes reappear throughout the album: the double-tracking of his voice with both a mutant echo in the low register and layered angelic singers above; collage clips of playground chatter pumped in as a distraction; stray noise slipping in and out of focus the same way instruments do, as if neither is more important. “Here in Spirit” evokes a funky drummer backing the ultra-smooth Rhye, while “In the Moment” falls out of time and back in again during a 30-second break after its first chorus, as if the instruments are rediscovering their footing.
Eternally Even impels reexamination of an accepted order, weighing complacency and convenience against conscience. As James puts it on “Same Old Lie,” “Nothing is more difficult than changing what’s been comfortable.” The quiet vibes of protest and experimental song design make for James’s most cohesive set to date, an unsure yet important step forward. Coming at a time as appropriate as it is inevitable, Eternally Even is the sound of a road-worn artist, whose music normally channels the awe and splendor of his country, challenging its structure and finding the deepest valley he’s ever seen.