Regions Of Light And Sound of God
Tom Lundregan, February 26, 2013
Listen: “Know Til Now”
In 1929, Lynd Ward published a novel told entirely in woodcuts (a process of relief printing using carvings in wood as an artistic medium) entitled Gods’ Man. It is commonly considered the first American graphic novel and it tells the tale of an artist who unknowingly makes a deal with Death, rises to great fame, is chased by a mob before falling, is rescued by the love of a Good Woman, and finds some redemption before having to fulfill his end of the Faustian bargain.
In 2008, My Morning Jacket lead singer, Jim James, stumbled off of a stage, began questioning his decisions and actions, fell in love and felt a spiritual reawakening, according to his recent interview with Rolling Stone. These events in James’life were occurring during the same period he was given a copy of Gods’ Man and the similarities to James’ own life at the time were immediately evident to him. While recovering from the injuries from that 2008 fall, James began work on what would become his first full length solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God.
The title of the album may be off putting to some, but in the same way that Dave Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, sounds full of conceit but is acceptable because it’s so personal, so too is James’ album. Regions of Light and Sound of God is so personal to James, in fact, that he plays all the instruments on the album, sings all the vocals, and produced and engineered the album himself. The songs feel meditative but not isolated – James’ voice still comes through with echo and reverb, but it’s focused inward and to the heavens. James has always been a spiritual nomad, wandering the desert looking for answers and Regions of Light and Sound of God is a stop in the desert. It is exploratory not just thematically or spiritually, but with voice, instrumentation and arrangement. James really seems to be delighting in playing various instruments and then engineering them in layers to put together the finished songs for the album. The album contains too much seriousness, perhaps, but again, it is a personal tale and these are serious contemplations.
The album opener, “State of the Art,” is a meditation of past/future. The question in this song wonders: with all the technology and modern conveniences today, are we any better off as human beings? It opens with just piano notes for the first verse, a lone, steady slow drum beat for the chorus, and a joining of the two for the rest of the song, as James layers them with other instruments. As the bass picks up in the third verse, it’s apparent this is not going to be a My Morning Jacket album, as “State of the Art” is perhaps the most musically sparse song James has ever recorded.
In the funky “Know Til Now,” his voice is layered into a chorus and meshed with some interesting organ work. Before closing out on a Middle Eastern-sounding saxophone solo, the song presents an “Amazing Grace” theme of being blind and now seeing – “I didn’t know til now / But now I see / How sweet life can be.” “A New Life” is a swingy, kicky throwback that echoes a late ’50s doo wop tune from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers or the Del-Vikings. It is also the song that most parallels the theme of finding love in Gods’ Man, pleading to a woman that “There’s much more stardust when you’re near / I think I’m really being sincere / I want a new life…with you.” “Actress“ also harkens back to the graphic novel–it has a jaunty, mid-’80s sound, but is a tale of a phony woman who weaves fantasy out of reality and uses her looks to get her way, sounding much like the artist’s mistress in Gods’ Man.
James seems to have always been most interested in the love of God – this without being direct about his own ideology or belief. With the last two songs on Regions of Light and Sound of God, he really begins to pursue this quest. “All Is Forgiven” is a song about being lost and praying that it’s not too late to be forgiven for following “All the wrong dreams / Lost in man’s schemes.” In fact, it is probably not a coincidence that “All Is Forgiven” is a mournful, jazzy tune with a lot of horn and a jazz-sounding drumbeat keeping the rhythm. While he never mentions it, James is following the tradition of jazz great John Coltrane. Like Coltrane’s magnum opus about waking up to the sins of the past and the reality of salvation, A Love Supreme, James’ album concludes with songs about forgiveness, redemption and God’s love. Then comes the Beatles-sounding slow, choral encomium of Martin Luther King Jr., “God’s Love To Deliver.” While thematically this song seems appropriate to close the album, with talk of finding the Lord and having “our hearts reborn,” the song is a little clunky and sounds more like an album opener than a closer.
Song placement is a minor quibble, and the album as a whole is brilliant. James has done what he set out to do five years ago when he was given an old book of woodcuts that pictorialized life and love and redemption. But what of the end of Gods’ Man, the fulfillment of a deal made with Death? Well in real life, the deal isn’t with Death or the Devil, it is with one’s self, and James is fulfilling the bargain through his music – in this case, a masterpiece of an album in Regions of Light and Sound of God.