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Cover Story: Jim James

If the devil ever goes down to Kentucky to ensnare a batch of gullible souls for his deep-fried collection, he might want to pass over the abode of My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James . . . unless, of course, he wants another unwinnable instrumental duel on his hands.

Plus, that messianic hair-and-beard combo straight out of an extras casting call for a remake of Zeffirelli’s “Jesus Of Nazareth” miniseries coupled with a reputation for putting on blissful three-hour marathon live shows that some categorize as religious experiences should deter the Dark One like a “No Irish Need Apply” sign.

Appearing: 4/20 at the Vic Theatre (3145 N. Sheffield) in Chicago.

Yet, James isn’t immune to the compromises that come along in both career and relationships that often feel like the equivalent of a Faustian bargain. “I’ve definitely had offers. I think in anybody’s life we all get those – whatever you want to call them – chances to sell your soul to the devil to advance somehow, advance in an evil way,” he admits by phone from home. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever done that.”

But, he took a terrifying fall off the stage in Iowa City in October of 2008 on MMJ’s Evil Urges tour as a sign that all was not copasetic. “I don’t want to say I brought it on myself, but I feel like I was traveling the path that wasn’t right for me and it resulted in a real physical injury,” James reasons.

The accident forced the band to postpone two dates at the Chicago Theatre and cancel benefit appearances for Obama’s first presidential run. More importantly, the incident messed with James’ psyche.

“It was really horrible and I don’t really like to think about it too much because I feel lucky to have recovered from it and I don’t want to dwell on it or anything like that. It was just really bad. I suffered some internal injuries that were really questionable and confusing at the time,” he recollects. “I don’t know, I think anybody who’s been through any sort of major injury, if you think too much like I tend to do, there’s a part of you that thinks maybe this is the end of me on this world and you kind of start to go down that path a little bit when times are really dark, and yeah, it was just a really crazy thing.”

When a friend gifted James with a copy of God’s Man that same year, something about the 1929 Lynd Ward precursor to the graphic novel instantly clicked. “When I looked at it and held it the first time, it just felt like a real slap in the face . . . I just felt like I knew it somehow. I knew it kind of intimately and deeply,” he gushes.

The wordless, wood-engraved novel finds an artist confronted by a stranger clothed all in black (cue spooky music) offering a magic paintbrush, responsible for creating the world’s masterpieces. All he has to do is sign on the dotted line. Once in possession of the unique tool and its mysterious powers, the artist scores chicks, fame, and huge sums of money. These hollow pursuits (and a scorned gold digger) lead the artist into a downward spiral of hallucinations, murder, exile, and injury before a beautiful goat herder rescues him. The two fall in love and celebrate the birth of their child until one day the insidious stranger returns to collect. Here, the cloaked man reveals his true identity – Death.

Morbid? Yes, but the artist’s common descent into temptation’s warm glove and Ward’s intricate, open-to-interpretation designs uncapped a hole inside the 34-year-old singer-songwriter that burst forth a dazzling collection of material. Originally slated to accompany an animated retelling of the book that James had been “dreaming and scheming” about (he still hopes it will “happen at some point”), the tracks on his solo debut, Regions Of Light And Sound Of God (Feb. 5 on ATO) wrangle the extreme emotional ups and downs in God’s Man.

“I just really identified with the whole thing visually and thematically and music kind of started pouring out me,” James says. “There were a couple of literal parts in the book, like there’s a part when the artist is chased out of town and falls off a cliff and gets injured and . . . is saved and rescued and falls in love, and a couple of things like that were happening to me in real life at the same time. I was out of commission for a while . . . and I was rescued and fell in love and kind of had this weirdly similar experience to what I was looking at in the book. Double déjà vu is the best way I can think to describe it.”

Picking out the plot points in the album’s nine tracks comes naturally. It’s not hard to imagine Satan, clad in top hat, tails, and a cane, gleefully tiptoeing to the skeezy church organ and tissing high-hat in “All Is Forgiven.” “A New Life” basks in the starlight-filled afterglow of reciprocal adulation with a Motown-distilled beat – one that could propel Diana Ross into the stratosphere. “God’s Love To Deliver” finds James’ layered falsetto undulating around a buzzing synth and cackling banjo while preaching from the divinely inspired mouth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Of The Mother Again” sounds like a cross between Hot Chip‘s tropicalia and Marvin Gaye‘s unburdening.

George Harrison stands as the most direct influence on Regions Of Light And Sound Of God. James’ connection to the sensitive, transcendental Beatle manifested itself on Tribute To, his 2009 EP of Harrison covers (released under the baffling Yim Yames moniker) and overflows into this work through phrasing, melody, and a deep spirituality – void of religious doctrine – imbued within its pores. Even with MMJ, James never shies away from discerning the definition of God.

For the full story, visit the issue through our partners at ShadeTree, or grab a copy available free throughout Chicagoland.

Janine Schaults

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