Something strange happens when My Morning Jacket's Jim James gets onstage. The singer will close his eyes, get into his guitar-playing, and build an almost telepathic connection between the band and the audience. "He just takes us off into space," drummer Patrick Hallahan has said.
One night in 2008, however, there was a disturbance in the force. In an attempt to get closer to the crowd, James climbed onto a monitor, lost his footing, and tumbled to the floor. The fall resulted in internal injuries so severe he was laid up for months. "It was very traumatic," he says. "I thought it might be the end of my time on Earth."
Instead, the incident became a turning point. James got into meditation, read a lot, and moved from New York back to his native Louisville. Mostly, though, he used his time recuperating to write the music that became his first solo album, "Regions of Light and Sound of God," a fusion of classic rock and futuristic soul on which he plays nearly every instrument.
During their 15-year career, My Morning Jacket have become one of America's best touring bands – rootsy-yet-spacey, sonic kin to both Neil Young and Radiohead, with a reputation for monstrous live shows. Yet James' new songs are inward-looking, full of acoustic reverie and funky studio pastiche. He calls it "useful" music, inspired by comforting classics like Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and the Velvet Underground's "Loaded" – and contrasts it with the brooding sound of his youth. "I'm 34, and I feel like our generation got sold the grunge movement, which had a lot of good music but dealt so much with pain," he says. "That was useful in a dark, negative way. I wanted something lighter."
With his beard and frizz-'fro combo and bright, searching, blue-green eyes, James looks like he just got out of some tucked-away Southern college with an excellent wizardry-studies program. It's a fitting look for a guy who's an unguarded spiritual idealist – happy to talk about reincarnation, interested in religion, and quick to defend meditation against criticism that it's New-Age hooey.
"A lot of people think you're supposed to lift off the carpet and see green stars and the Buddha and flashing purple lights," he says. "Meditation just allows you to sit with yourself and see what's going on inside."
That sense of harmonic convergence is all over "Regions of Light." One of his only guest musicians is drummer David Givan, an old friend who played in James' first band. And the album ends with an ambitious fan letter to Martin Luther King Jr. called "God's Love to Deliver." There aren't a lot of songwriters with the visionary zeal to attempt such a statement. Except one: It's unsurprising to hear that James recently had his mind blown at an "unbelievable" Springsteen show, stunned by Bruce's ability to hold a three-hour connection with the arena-size crowds to which MMJ may soon be graduating (the band plans to work on their next album later this year). And if they don't, no big deal – James has got a couple lifetimes to work out the artistic kinks.
"I don't have anything figured out," he says. "Just being alive is so psychedelic."
Five Key Jim James tracks:
"One Big Holiday"
A beast of indie-Skynyrd guitar majesty. If it sounds like he's singing in a cathedral, close – it was recorded in a grain silo.
"We are the innovators/They are the imitators," James sings on a song that's Southern rock for the Radiohead era.
"Holdin On To Black Metal"
An ass-shaking ode to the devil's favorite noise, with girl-group background singers and an R&B groove.
"State Of The Art (A.E.I.O.U.)"
Jim James, 2013
James shows his mastery of studio science on this planet-hopping funk jam that muses on technology.
Jim James, 2013
James has cited "Over the Rainbow" as a musical holy grail; this sunny acoustic guitar instrumental taps that sense of wonder.