I want to start by saying something about my own current emotional state before I get into my thoughts on Jim James’ latest solo effort, Eternally Even. I don’t really even need to get into all of the extremely obvious political goings-on; everyone knows what happened. But I will say it has me feeling extremely numb and cynical. So I’m listening to Eternally Even through ear muffs, viewing it through a grayscale lens. I know I’m supposed to be objective, and I don’t think this necessarily biases me against Jim James, who I generally like. But I feel responsible to mention upfront, before I give my impressions of this album, that I am remarkably unimpressionable at the moment.
You know who Jim James is, right? Front man from My Morning Jacket? Well, if you don’t know who he is, he’s the fuzzy front man from My Morning Jacket. Apparently they played a good show at Bonnaroo once. They have albums of varying degrees of quality. I don’t know, check them out, or don’t.
As front men are wont to do, Jim James ventured out from his role with My Morning Jacket to try his hand as a solo artist. He did so in 2013 with Regions of Light and Sound of God, an album I have certainly not heard, but does have a very serious sounding title. He’s returned as a solo artist with Eternally Even, an album I actually have heard (three times!) with a much less bad title.
Eternally Even is very much about what has been dragged out before us on the news and on our preferred social media platforms over the last year and half and what ultimately ended on Tuesday night: that damned election. It’s ripe with election sounding words and phrases such as “silent majority” (ugh), and even the line “If you don’t vote it’s on you, not me”. James is clearly concerned with the election, and while I respect him using his medium to express these concerns, it’s a tough position to take when it comes to making music that people will take seriously.
And let us talk about this music. Eternally Even has to be among the longest 9 song albums in the history of music. Spotify tells me it is 41 minutes long. This is obviously a lie. Most of the songs seem to drag on with James repeating the refrain, over and over and over, and then for good measure, over again. “True Nature” ends with the repetition of the phrase “True nature” 11 times. The completely unacceptable song “Same Old Lie” is built around the repetitive chorus “It’s the same, it’s the same, it’s the same old lie”. I thought I was losing my mind while listening to it. I was so thrown off that I almost missed the line “They say we can’t live together but we know that’s a lie; ‘Cause we know it in our heart we can make it if we try” which is as clichéd as it gets and also objectively terrible.
It’s actually fairly bizarre, Jim James has a lovely voice, and on some of My Morning Jacket’s best work he uses it masterfully, singing catchy, pretty melodies. But on Eternally Even the melodies are uninventive or simply absent. “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Pt. 2” (a song which follows the unnecessary instrumental number “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Pt. 1”) finds James essentially just talking. It’s a far cry from the likes of My Morning Jacket classics like “Mahgeetah” and it’s one reason the music on Eternally Even is so unenjoyable.
I find throughout the album I experienced several of what I will call “I get it, but…” moments.
I get that this album is a more experimental than some of the more straightforward folk of James’ early career, but the experiment feels awkward. I get that, as a solo artist, James is probably trying to make music that is qualitatively different than what he makes with My Morning Jacket, but it’s not as enjoyable. I get that Jim James was preoccupied with the election, but the way he conveys his preoccupations is far from nuanced.
Now, this is why I thought it would be important to note my own emotions upfront. This album completely failed to move me; but whether that’s because the album isn’t very moving or if I’m currently unmovable is harder for me to say. This election will undoubtedly inspire great music, I remember laughing a little at a tweet declaring that punk rock was now “back”. I don’t believe Jim James channels the frustrations of the lengthy campaign process or the emotions and gravity surrounding what transpired on Tuesday into the songs on Eternally Even. I also don’t believe you really need to listen to it.
I write this as polls close across the country and maps begin to fill in with somber shades of blue and red. This is the last time I will get to listen to Eternally Even in the atmosphere that created it. Every time after this, it will be a relic. And that frustrates me, because it is a very unfulfilling relic.
Eternally Even is about more than just this election, but the election feels like the galvanizing force that, in essence, created this album. These songs were cobbled together from jam sessions by My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James after a movie soundtrack fell through, and this gives the entire album a fractured, buzzing looseness that mirrors the general temperature in the room regarding all this political business. Dude is frustrated with things, and you can tell.
But this should be the kind of event that gives us classics. An election this bad should be creating the kind of art that people will be pointing to the next time an election this bad comes along. Anytime things go this sideways it always creates the type of friction that unyieldingly creates great music. I think those albums exist and will be made in the coming months, but I don’t count Eternally Even among their ranks.
James did an interview with Rolling Stone about this album, and it exemplifies my problems with the process. James is not a fan of Trump. Why? Because Trump is “scary”. Climate change? That’s “scary” too. I know these things are scary. Especially climate change. Go look up some climate change predictions and freak yourself out for an afternoon. But an album is an opportunity to say something interesting. It’s an opportunity to channel anger and frustration and fear into something that can help other people do the same.
Eternally Even simply reflects these emotions back.
I think a lot of this has to do with James’ musical repurposing here. These songs feel fragmentary and blurry, and in that way they feel a lot like a trip through James’ headspace. Reverb and space have always played a part in James’ music, especially going back to the first couple My Morning Jacket albums. And, here, the aural slathering can occasionally enhance the paranoia and unease that the album focuses on. There’s no center, and in a way that feels appropriate.
But the songs also feel weightless and smooth, and it’s hard to create friction out of something with those attributes. And I think this album does want to create friction. “Same Old Lie” shakes its head at the entire electoral process, but it does so on the back of a self-satisfied yawn. Pointing out the hypocrisy and insanity of modern politics is easy to do; expressing those ideas in a way that doesn’t just remind me of my terrible, terrible facebook news feed is a much more difficult thing to do. James proves here that, at least here, he’s not capable of doing so.