Perhaps aided by the long gestation period of each new album, My Morning Jacket has made a habit of routinely exceeding expectations, finding new permutations for their sound while remaining insistently friendly to the mainstream. Despite their status as one of modern rock’s biggest touring acts and a cornerstone of the notoriously loopy Bonnaroo festival, they’ve managed to transcend the static jam-band stigma by remaining endlessly inventive, flirting with a lot of weird ideas while retaining a mostly straightforward presentation.
This balance was upset on 2008’s Evil Urges, which pushed the experimentation too far, jeopardizing that central simplicity with too many bizarre tangents. The divided presentation of new and old, shrill yowling funk placed alongside Southern-rock muscle, never gelled. Circuital shares some of that jaggedness, but its overall flow feels far more natural. It begins at a fever pitch and steadily works its way down, ending with two glimmering ballads that sound like the band taking a collective breath.
In some ways, Circuital peaks with opener “Victory Dance,” a soaring collection of all the elements the band has come to embrace: lead singer Jim James’s startling vocal acrobatics, heavy guitar, half-baked/half-serious mysticism (“Hope to watch the victory dance over many lives to come” James intones). By the time closer “Movin’ Away” rolls around 40 minutes later, they’ve gradually progressed to an entirely different style, swaddled in slide guitar and a drifting piano waltz beat.
Across this spectrum, Circuital manages to repeatedly identify the one thing that’s made My Morning Jacket so successful, a commonality shared with inventive but arena-friendly groups from Led Zeppelin to the White Stripes. All three pair ideas and concepts, often loud and overblown ones, with a consistently visceral application of rock-n’-roll force. The songs on Circuital are big, lovable, and proudly dumb, embracing those characteristics along with any number of nostalgic rock clichés.
The album mostly halts the rampant experimentation the band had been engaged in for so long, which means that nothing here is as persistently weird as tracks like “Highly Suspicious” from Evil Urges. But Circuital is probably a necessary step after that strange thrust into foreign territory, a regrouping effort that serves as a reminder of My Morning Jacket’s ever-present strengths.