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Review: Jim James' 'Regions of Light and Sound of God'

In 1964, during a single session in New Jersey, John Coltrane and his quartet recorded the entirety of A Love Supreme. The almost supernatural, single-minded focus required to produce such a complex piece of art in such a compact amount of time was a true manifestation of the spirit of the album. A statement of unity, concord, and appreciation for the mysterious workings of the higher power to which Coltrane credited his music, A Love Supreme was the sound of an artist cracking the door on the connection to his muse, and letting his listeners peer in at the light, if only for a second.

Regions of Light and Sound of God, the first solo album from My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, bears that same mark of divine connection. This is not to bluntly compare James to Coltrane, or even to suggest that it’s possible to compare them as artists. It is, nonetheless, recognizing the possibility that, as an unabashedly spiritual album, Regions of Light can be understood in much the same way as Coltrane’s masterpiece.

On James’ record, basslines loop in endless circles, making small room for variations before returning to their prescribed patterns. Organs drone prophetically like some distant, unceasing thunder. James’ overdubs converge in heavenly choirs, speaking in open vowels that indicate, but do not entirely thicken into, actual words. And as on his records with My Morning Jacket, James’ entrancing lead vocals float in a sea of reverb: delicate, ethereal, and warm. The effect is hypnotic.

Photo by Neil Krug

Throughout the album, James sounds perpetually within proximity of a powerful, yet benevolent, intangible force. “Dear one / You always push the boundaries of soul,” he intones. “God’s speaking through you / Divine connection.” The verbal formulations of his devotion often spill over into a language that almost sounds like romantic love. “Whether or not it’s true / I believe in the concept of you,” he sings. Such words could be whispered tenderly to a partner in a moment of intimacy or spoken firmly and publicly in a burst of religious fervor. The way that James sings them, though, they could be both at the same time. After all, his devotion isn’t directed towards a vengeful male deity like the God of the Old Testament, but towards a giving, productive, female source of power. On “Of The Mother Again,” James declares his desire to be “seated at the right hand of the mother again” “ not the father. This distinction seems crucial. He speaks directly to that giving source on “Dear One,” saying, “For this mission / We were chosen you and me / One egg that’s split in two. In this moment, Regions of Light abolishes the false dichotomy between sexuality and religion that pervades Western religion. Both the guiding spiritual light and the lost human who follows it are born from the same biological place: the source of biological reproduction, the egg. For James, it’s not just possible to connect to that higher source through human love, affection, and sexuality; it’s necessary to do so in order to forge that connection at all.

The entrancing piano patterns, firm, grounded basslines, and swelling strings all augment the album’s central sensation of wonder in the face of a spiritual force too strong to ignore and too mysterious to fully understand. When strange chimes, thumps, or whistles echo towards the far-off regions of the mix, it is almost impossible to tell exactly what they are or when they began. Like faith, which would have a person accept the power of what he or she cannot comprehend, these sounds compel listeners to place their trust in James as a sonic guide, much as he hands over his free will to that productive, bounteous source from which his creative abilities blossom. This is a man at the height of his powers who, like Coltrane, is able to admit that they, in fact, are not really his own powers at all.

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