The title of My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James’s third solo LP, ‘Uniform Distortion’, prepares you for what’s to come, though not necessarily in the way that it was intended. Musically, the album is a coherent experience, not because it forms a seamless, atmospheric whole, as was the case with his previous solo effort, 2016’s psychedelic, soulful ‘Eternally Even’, but because everything on it sounds familiar, and purposely so. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” James sings on ‘Throwback’, and it’s tempting to take that line out of context, as an acknowledgment of the conventional sonic route the album takes. ‘Uniform Distortion’ is without a doubt one of the songwriter’s most energetic and joyful collection of songs, a set of well-performed, fuzzed-out, straightforward rock n’ rock jams. But it’s hard not to feel like it’s less of an original project and more like another covers album from James (who put out his second tribute album in 2017), a kind of Tribute To 3.
The actual meaning behind the title is not far from potent, and certainly timely. In a letter to Duane Michals, the photographer responsible for the photo used as cover art on the album titled ‘The Illuminated Man’, James writes: “My head feels like it is exploding with the amount of information we are forced to consume on a daily basis and how that information is so DISTORTED there is almost no longer any tangible truth.. more and more of us are feeling lost and looking for ways out of this distortion and back to the truth.” When this sense of disconnection comes through, it leads to the album’s best and most interesting moments, like on the dynamic ‘Out of Time’, where the more modern, dreamy, and heavy production amplifies the feeling of being out of touch with reality in the digital age (the singer explored similar sentiments through his cover of The Beach Boys‘ ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’). Follow-up track ‘Throwback’ also comments on the way that social media seem to warp time, with a direct reference to the #tbt trend, though any sense of satire is overshadowed by the very genuine and passionate delivery from James, as well as the lyrical content, which is appropriately vague and repetitive, just like memory itself.
Though this thematic undercurrent does run through some songs, ‘Uniform Distortion’ is more of a classic rock-inspired record that aims to be simply enjoyable in the most direct and potentially liberating sense. On ‘Just a Fool’, the single that kicks off the album with a rocking, albeit somewhat generic, guitar riff and a Thin Lizzy-esque vocal delivery, Jim James takes a hard but forgiving look at himself and his life as a rock n’ roll musician. This pattern of self-reflection comes back on the more impactful ‘Yes to Everything’, an upbeat 80s pop-leaning tune that works largely due to James’s playful, and at times powerful, performance. “Too many lives left wide open/ Oh, what an ocean/ What’s beneath the waves?” he sings, as a driving guitar solo soon accompanies him. ‘No Secrets’, another personal moment that’s also the quietest track on the album, sounds like a standard festival ballad, but despite its wonderfully melodic guitar line, James’s awkward mid-track falsetto doesn’t match well with the admirably candid lyrics.
However enjoyable, there’s less substance to some of the other jams here: glam rock track ‘You Get To Rome’ has a killer distorted guitar going for it, but it lacks the personality that previously-mentioned tracks offered in depicting the rock n’ roll lifestyle and ultimately comes off as little more than KISS worship. Nevertheless, even the album’s darkest moments sound like they were a whole lot of fun to record. ‘No Use Waiting’ is a doomful, darkly ominous track, with its steady bass, psychedelic vocal harmonies, and a sluggish guitar line that make it stand out in the tracklisting. But this is a Jim James album, after all, and there’s always light on the horizon. In fact, there’s even room for a sunshiny dance-rock tune like ‘Over and Over’ that sounds like Weezer emulating 50s bubblegum pop, where the singer’s optimism once again comes through: “How many lifetimes until we realize we could all be lovers and friends?” he sings. As a rock album, ‘Uniform Distortion’ is a decent listen, and there may be a point to its simplicity. But coming from an artist as talented and multi-faceted Jim James, it’s hard not to see it as a step back in terms of inventiveness and creativity.