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Last year, Jim James was on tour in Europe with his band, the acclaimed and glorious My Morning Jacket. One day, he went for a walk, and some music he had made several years ago popped up on shuffle in his headphones—lengthy instrumental jams, built around organ and drums, recorded with the notion that they might work as a film score.
James was surprised to find melodies and ideas coming into his head, and suddenly the journey toward his second solo album, Eternally Even, had begun. “The whole thing really surprised me,” he says. “It was like a bonus gift from the universe. I didn't set out to make a solo record—it’s not like I sat down and booked studio time. It just started and I was a slave to it, just helpless.”
He worked on the album for over a year, at his home in Louisville and also during
an extended stay in Los Angeles. “I started from the instrumentals, but then really allowed whatever happened, with no intention, to dictate the songs,” he says. “I was really excited by the sound—there’s a lot going on, but it’s based around fairly minimal things and unusual instruments. Finding new things, you feel like a kid again. It brings out the joy in music and you get back to that beginner's mind.” The album is the follow-up to James’s 2013 solo debut Regions of Light and Sound of God, which Rolling Stone described as “nine flamboyantly spiritual songs wrapped in creamy electronics and set to funk and hip-hop beats...an eccentric, gently compelling pleasure.” It is also, of course, part of a career that includes seven albums with My Morning Jacket, one of this century’s standard-bearing rock bands, most recently 2015’s The Waterfall.
James maintains that as songs come to him, it’s easy to distinguish which ones are meant to be solo efforts and which will be directed toward MMJ. “It’s pretty clear, 90% of the time, whether it's something I would enjoy working on by myself as opposed to stuff for the band, where we all have our roles,” he says. “If I have a song that I want to be a performance, that's kind of one world, versus building it piece by piece.”
As the songs started to come together (beginning with the album’s opener, “Hide in Plain Sight”), James was becoming aware of themes emerging in his lyrics—concerns about society and the state of our discourse during this period of chaos and conflict. “The times we're in are especially crazy, scary, violent,” he says. “There’s so much inequality and stuff that needs to be righted, there was no way that couldn't get into what I was thinking about.
“These songs are about wanting to be a part of the discussion, part of saying ‘Can't we get to a peaceful place, why is that so hard for us?’—there are these very basic things that so many people want, but they get sidetracked by greed.” The first single from Eternally Even, “Same Old Lie,” speaks directly to the brutality and deception of the 2016 election season. “Nothing is more difficult than changing what’s been comfortable/We’ve seen it tried a million times, it’s hard to think when hypnotized,” he sings, before concluding in the final verse “You can’t trade today for some far-off promise of tomorrow/You can’t build love out of guns, blood, and sorrow.”
James wrote “Here in Spirit” after attending a rally in Los Angeles on the day after the shootings in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. “I was feeling so utterly gutted that things like this keep happening,” he says. “I wanted to put a light on it so that something like this doesn't get kicked under the rug—it’s everybody's job to talk about it as much as we can.”
After working on the tracks by himself for almost a year, James brought in Grammy-nominated producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Conor Oberst, Dawes). “Blake helped me take it to another level,” he says. “It was time to bring in ears that hadn't been buried in this music for so long, to help me bring it into focus.”
“When Jim first played me this music, the first thing I noticed was inventiveness of it all,” says Mills. “But what really moved me was that the songs that he was building were so personal and inspired and beautifully crafted. I remember feeling that I was uniquely qualified to produce this—to allow all of its charms to burn brightly, and still make sure nothing vital was being sacrificed or overlooked.”
Most of the time, the artist and the producer were in lock-step about what the direction of the album should be. When they disagreed, though, the sessions could turn into a good-natured battle of strong wills. “Blake is so confident that what he thinks should happen is right, and I'm equally confident in my opinion,” says James with a laugh. “Nine times out of ten I agreed with him, but it was a big eye-opener when I would go with his opinion and he turned out to be right. It was fun working with someone who also had such a clear vision of what the record should be.”
“Jim has a well-documented love affair with reverb, and he often uses it to great effect,” says Mills. “But there were times where I felt the urgency of his message, and the human quality of his voice, were being squandered. I had to insist sometimes that we pull back on the echo—knowing that the bone-dry vocal underneath it all would blow people’s minds if they had the chance to hear it.” The results are nine songs (including two—“We Ain’t Getting Any Younger” parts one and two—with music edited and reassembled out of one extended jam) that are both immediately identifiable as Jim James music and also sound like nothing he’s ever done. Funky and spacey, concise but expansive, Eternally
Even is the next step in a creative journey that has also included work with the all-star Monsters of Folk, the Woody Guthrie tribute album New Multitudes, and the recastings of newly-unearthed Bob Dylan lyrics on Lost on the River. All of this work, James believes, ultimately contributes to the longevity and vitality of My Morning Jacket. “I was sometimes getting bored in the band because we'd been going so long,” he says. “But then whenever I let myself explore, when we come back together, we would be so excited to see each other. It’s fun to find new things, but I’ve realized how valuable the other end of the spectrum is, and treasure the gift of time that My Morning Jacket has together. It’s been a cool awakening.”