Jim James loves taking walks. In fact, the lead singer for the Louisville-bred rock band My Morning Jacket once came up with lyrics for almost an entire album by disciplining himself to go on a ninety-minute hike every day. James spends a good chunk of his time now in Los Angeles, but he still owns a house in Louisville, a cute 1950s ranch east of downtown, and he likes hitting the trails in the city’s urban playground the Parklands or the nearby Bernheim forest. Sometimes he listens to music—the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers is in current rotation—other times to the wind whistling in the trees while he waits for song ideas to come to him. They usually do.
Over the past few years, though, those walks have required some extra head clearing. One of the most electrifying American rock and roll bands of the past twenty years, My Morning Jacket finished yet another mammoth tour in 2017, and the members went their separate ways. That’s not unusual for the five of them, but this break felt different, with a real sense of unease. Though James demurs on the details, suffice it to say that burnout had reached an all-time high, and splitting up was definitely an option.
“It crossed my mind for sure,” says guitarist Carl Broemel. “Ultimately I wasn’t convinced [it would happen]. This is the longest musical relationship for any of us, and it’s hard. So like any relationship, you gotta do some maintenance.”
The frostiness began thawing in 2019, and the band committed to a short run of four shows that summer. MMJ’s live gigs are legendary (in 2008, the group played a career-defining four-hour set at Bonnaroo…in the rain), and the shows, including two nights at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks, rekindled the spark that had gone missing. “I knew it was right the minute I walked onstage,” James recalls. “We found a way to enjoy each other’s company again.”
Rejuvenated, they reconvened at 64Sound in L.A. to take a swing at recording new material. James functions as something of a benevolent dictator for the band, sending members voice memos of music and lyrics the night before, which then get fleshed out in the studio the next day. On previous records, other personnel would join the sessions, but this time, it was just the five of them. “Our recording process has been grandiose at times,” Broemel says. “This time we needed to be alone.”
The result, My Morning Jacket, the band’s ninth studio album, marks a milestone. It’s the record that finally captures the ferociousness, the moodiness, and the delicacy they’ve honed so well onstage. “It feels like the world is so loaded with information right now and grand statements,” James says of self-titling the album. “It made sense to us to just let the band and the music speak for itself.”
My Morning Jacket does just that, moving seamlessly among soaring rock anthems (“Regularly Scheduled Programming” and the earthshaking “Complex”), wistful pop melancholia (“In Color” and the twinkling “Out of Range”), and haunting psychedelic gems, including the nine-minute masterpiece “The Devil’s in the Details,” inspired by James’s trips to the mall during a tumultuous adolescence. “I was ruthlessly bullied until I was like twenty,” says the singer, who’s now forty-three.
James is one of music’s most mysterious personalities, part shaman, part seventies soul spinner (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is his all-time favorite), part guitar god. “I’ve never felt like I fit in on this planet,” he readily admits. And the pandemic did him no favors. The band finished recording at the start of March 2020 and was eager to get back on the road, but the world had other ideas. “I got profoundly depressed,” James says quietly. “I found myself alone. I felt like I was thrown into a soundless, loveless void, and it really, really got to me.”
One of the album’s best tracks is perhaps also its simplest: the sizzling “Lucky to Be Alive,” which takes on added meaning in light of the pandemic. But for James specifically, it refers to his struggles with a host of health issues that stem from a relentless, exhausting tour schedule—internal injuries from falling off stage in 2008, back surgery, heart problems. He says he’ll be dealing with those the rest of his life. But today, he’s feeling good, and he’s profoundly grateful to be kicking off another chapter in the band’s storied career. “We formed this beautiful circle again in which we love making music together,” he says. “Then I think about the audience. It’s been over twenty years, and they still show up. What an amazing gift.”