Jim James’ Musical Blend of the Religious, Spiritual, and Secular

Jim James performance at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo Credit: David Lewis

Scott Muir

In contemporary popular music, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who engages sacred matters more consistently and conspicuously than James Edward Olliges Jr., better known as Jim James or Yim Yames—solo artist, eclectic producer, and frontman and sole songwriter for one of today’s biggest rock bands, My Morning Jacket. James reflects back on how his musical journey began at Louisville’s St. Martha Catholic Elementary School in thoroughly sacred terms. “Even though the majority of that experience was laughably hellish,” recalls James, it was ultimately redeemed by finding kindred misfit spirits with whom to engage in lifelong creative collaboration. “Music was our saving grace. It transported us outside the realm of what we felt was impossible in our bodies here on this earth. It enabled us to transcend the pain of being an awkward adolescent and experience the true glory of life.”[1] With 10 albums soaked in religious imagery and existential sentiment, James has steadily pursued this transcendent vision of music’s salvific power in a remarkably direct manner.

In previous SM posts, I’ve analyzed how the national network of multi-day camping music festivals known as “The Scene” shapes American “spirituality”, tracing its evolution from the ‘60s counterculture to the Grateful Dead and “jam band” subculture to becoming a fixture of mainstream popular culture through massive eclectic festivals like Bonnaroo. Here, I turn to consider how the music performed in these spaces informs what Bill Parsons has called “the spiritual but not religious movement” (SBNRM) through analysis of Jim James’ lyrics and music. My aim here is not to fix any “real meaning” to James’ output or speculate about his personal identity, but rather to illustrate how he presents an entangled web of meanings that his listeners may appropriate for their own religious/spiritual/secular constructions of the sacred.

James’ music constantly crosses the fuzzy, tenuous boundaries between established religious traditions, alternative SBNR forms, and skeptical secularism. Having lived in Kentucky his entire life, James has utilized traditional religious symbols “in the water” that Southerners swim in—God, Christ, Satan, salvation, and sin—in a much more direct and confessional manner than typically permitted within the aporetic world of Indie rock. Yet James transmutes these symbols’ traditional meanings through a personalized, universalistic approach characteristic of the SBNRM. The result is music that strives toward transcendence in language that is often explicitly religious yet ambiguous enough to remain accessible to the secular hipster, the SBNR hippie, and the committed monotheist alike. For example, the lyrics from the anthem “Gideon”–“Religion should appeal to the hearts of the young”–can be construed to reinforce either of the three paradigms depending on how one interprets the word “should.” Is this a Bush-era denunciation of reactionary evangelical imperialism? Or a celebration of individualistic heart-led spirituality? Or a call to redeem religion itself for the Millennial generation? The triumphalist tone of the music imbues James’ words with conviction and conditions the interpretation. Yet it doesn’t resolve it one way or the other, a fact made clear by the divergent interpretations offered by commentators on the interactive lyrics database genius.com.

Responses to “Steam Engine,” another of MMJ’s most enduring early songs, illustrate how differentially aligned listeners appropriate its cultural capital accordingly. The song opens with testimony to belief in a “really real” unseen order beyond the physical that’s “always with me” and concludes with a renunciation of money and drugs and an obscure reference to Jesus’ personal significance for the singer. One (or perhaps two) genius.com commentator(s) offer confessional interpretations that lie somewhere between a relatively bounded religiosity (i.e. confessional Christianity) and a more open-ended theistic spirituality. Perhaps the contributor(s) intentionally crafted them to be accessible to individuals across this spectrum. However, Ryan Leas of Pitchfork.com, an online indie music magazine, uses this platform to assert the ambiguity of the song over and against such constructive interpretations, and even celebrates that opacity as essential to James’ artistry. This treatment aligns perfectly with an evasive secular hipster aesthetic in which the artist (and critic) always critiques, deconstructs, and expresses ambivalence rather than testify commitment to stable touchstones of truth.

James, for his part, seems to lean into this ambiguity while simultaneously taking risks and making statements. In 2008, MMJ put out an eclectic pop album called Evil Urges. The album forefronts radio-friendly singles inspired by Prince that helped the band break into mainstream pop channels and fills out with smatterings of psychedelia for jam fans and alt-country tunes for the hipsters. Religious, spiritual, and secular approaches to transcendence are similarly blended on the record. The album’s most straightforward sacred statement is a post-imperial, universalist, eschatological vision cast through the heavy-rocking “Remnants” characteristic of the utopian pluralism celebrated throughout the Scene: “Then I saw a new Heaven…All souls, all faiths, always, we are one!” In contrast, “Smokin’ From Shootin’” wrestles with the relationships between God and the self, fate and free will, and science and religion in an open-ended but rather tortured manner that conveys the frustrations of a dogged seeker. And the bouncy “I’m Amazed” juxtaposes James’ amazement at both “the evolution” and a general “lack of faith” playfully, while offering meditations regarding the widespread rejection of (perhaps divine?) love in favor of inferior (idolatrous?) substitutes. Here, the ambiguity is more acute than ever.

This ability to blend these cultural forms—hippie spirituality, hipster secularity, and old-time religion—helps explain Jim James’ and My Morning Jacket’s phenomenal success. Branding is as important in the music industry as any other, and it is extraordinarily difficult to transcend subcultural boundaries demarcating hippie jam bands, hipster indie rockers, and conventional pop/rock stars. Indeed, My Morning Jacket is arguably the only band to appeal to these distinct audiences with roughly equal success. By blending these forms, James strives to point behind their limitations—spiritually, musically, and politically—as we see on his more adventurous side and “solo” projects.

In 2012, James teamed up with indie folk superstars M. Ward and Conor Oberst to record Monsters of Folk, simultaneously James’ most straight-forward religious and theologically evasive effort to date. The album opens with “Dear God,” a track where each artist sings a quasi-confessional verse to the Divine that reflect their faithful pursuit, God’s elusiveness, and the failure to find a satisfying theodicy. But James’ contribution “The Right Place” seems to celebrate self-fulfillment and self-esteem over trying to please a divine pedagogue. While his finale, “His Master’s Voice,” is an epic ode to traditional piety that posits Christ and Muhammad collaborating on a revision of the Bible for a “whole new generation of non-believers,” only to ultimately privilege the singer’s inner voice over such spiritual savants who “speak twice as nice.” These entangled images place obedience to God, individualistic spirituality, and non-belief in a conversation with one another that relativizes all three while seemingly holding out the possibility for some kind of integration.

Regions of Light and Sound of God (2013), Jim James’ first solo effort, trumpets this theological orientation even more loudly with ever more “far out” imagery. Here, we see James pushing boundaries musically, blending disparate genres—rock, funk, folk, blues, and psychedelia—and holding together an ambitiously eclectic album with palpably religious thematic threads. The affective quality of the music conditions the interpretation of each song’s lyrical content, though again, not in any unilateral way. What are we to make of the tortured vocals and tragic tone of the Christocentric “All is forgiven;” The bouncy funk flowing throughout the ode to the divine feminine, “Of the Mother Again;” The earnest missionary march undergirding the self-referential messianism of “Dear One;” The haunting melody and otherworldly vocals on the Martin Luther King-tribute “God’s Love to Deliver?Regions confronts listeners with a strikingly theological puzzle, one sufficiently opaque to be easily appropriated into their personal identity construction project whatever the trajectory.

James’ new solo effort, Eternally Even, represents a departure from the transcendent thrust of the bright, mystically-oriented psychedelia of My Morning Jacket’s last two records, serving up dark, funky tunes preaching plain politics in the here and now. The entire album, released on November 4th, seems to prophetically wrestle with the implications of an impending Trump victory. “Same Old Lie” juxtaposes images of an impending apocalypse brought on by division through deception with a vision of a new harmonious order, calling out the politically disconnected to join the struggle for the latter. “Hide in Plain Sight” indicts the shameful bigotry and fear-mongering haunting the Trump campaign while telling those on the wrong side of history “I still care about you” and “you don’t have to go this alone.” “Here in Spirit,” written in response to the Pulse nightclub massacre, calls for loving action and a willingness to sacrifice in the fight against violent hatred while remaining “one with the light.” And on “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Part 2,” “True Nature,” and the title track, James waxes existential while issuing a blunt call to action: “you can talk about it all you want. But what you gonna do?” Historically, James has shied away from explicitly political themes, but here he eschews the religious symbols that have been his bread and butter in favor of ever-more fungible images of “light,” “love,” and “spirit.” Here, the search for a sacred source is secondary to this-worldly ethics: truth must be spoken to power, and hatred must be confronted with loving action. Explicitly and implicitly, James’ points beyond the political limitations plaguing his various subcultural audiences revealed by this election—hippie escapism, hipster counter-dogmatism, and conventional complicity with an oppressive system.

By Tim Farley – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7530889

I recently experienced James’ performance of this material at a venue that embodies the same blending of the religious, spiritual, and secular. Atlanta’s The Tabernacle housed a Baptist congregation for nearly a century, has served as a primary venue for sub/countercultural acts over the past two decades, and is now owned by Live Nation/Tickemaster, the largest live music conglomerate in the world. I had just come from one of countless politically-frought family dinners shared over this past Thanksgiving holiday, and was craving some healing inspiration. My man Yim Yames delivered. Through his music, James issued prophetic denunciations of the brokenness plaguing our political system and national culture, while calling listeners to transcend the ubiquitous hatred through uncompromising love. Between songs, James preached, “We need to be a force of unconditional love right now. We just need so much love right now. And we got to speak out for each other and stand up for each other. Hopefully shit doesn’t get as fucked up as it might, but if it does, we especially got to stick up for each other.” Words like these reinforce James’ express hope that his new music “speaks to the times.”

But this focus on James’ words and recordings only tells half the story at best. As Hans Christian Anderson famously said, “when words fail, music speaks.” For me, the most powerful performance of the night was an instrumental: “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Part 1,” a dark funky trip that serves as sonic testimony to the individual and collective struggle to be free in these nightmarish times. The absence of vocals draws the listener’s gaze away from James to the diverse audience gathered to celebrate his music. And for that moment, in spite of everything, the friends and strangers gathered at the Tabernacle to dance to this music—hippies, hipsters, and, no doubt, a few Trump supporters—manifested measures, however modest, of freedom, peace, and unity.

In today’s diffuse musical landscape, it seems highly unlikely that a countercultural “voice of a generation” a la the giants of the ‘60s will emerge. After all, today’s music is generally consumed semi-consciously via automatic streaming sites like Spotify that operate according to personalized taste algorithms. In this context, live performances like James’ show at the Tabernacle are more important than ever for realizing music’s social power, for they bring people together for increasingly remarkable embodied experiences of focused collective listening. When we consider how the incessant onslaught of digital information constantly draws our attention away from the present moment and the human beings who share our immediate environment, live music looms all the larger as a powerful practice for experiencing a supra-mundane sense of connection. And when the performance reflects such a self-conscious commitment to music as a means for making meaning and transcending the deep fissures fracturing our contemporary world, then a concert can become a very sacred matter indeed.

[1] https://www.louisville.com/content/my-morning-jacket-my-morning-jacket-jim-james-music

Scott Muir is a doctoral candidate studying American Religion at Duke University who writes on religion and live music, and religion in higher education. Muir has written several pieces for Sacred Matters on live music and the sacred. He has another article on Bonnaroo and the psychedelic tradition and an earlier article on Deadheads