“Who are a little wise, the best fools be”
There is a lot Jim James could have meant when he released Uniform Clarity in 2018. James reinterprets and rerecords the entirety of his Uniform Distortion, which was released earlier that same year, for an entirely different result. Where Distortion is loud and distant, Clarity is intimate and personal – endlessly more thoughtful. On the flip side, where Distortion tries to connect, Clarity embraces the solitary nature of songwriting, where the process can alienate the artist by its effort to reach something outside of the individual. It is in this tension that Uniform Clarity comes to life.
The album is sonically spare. James sings while he plays guitar but admits no other interference. The album is raw, without the common refinement of studio recordings, such that the listener becomes aware of the recording quality. The recording equipment is far from a neutral party and in this case, James’ voice grows fuzzy and distorted when at its most passionate. On “Throwback,” James cries the refrain “when we were young” like he is trying to bring back the fleeting feeling of having “all the potential in the world.” The more powerfully he sings, the less clear his voice becomes. It’s an acknowledgment that the harder he tries to bring back the feelings of youth and innocence, the more distant they feel.
The way that the songs all have a similar sound is meant to unify them into one long confessional. The entire album is uneasy, and it is through the discomfort that the power of the album emerges. James worries about time and he worries about his place, not easy issues to resolve. In “Yes to Everything,” James regrets a past love, and wrestles with the paradox of wanting to make yourself open, but needing boundaries to define who you are lest you lose sight of yourself. When James sings “I said ‘yes’ too many times,” his voice breaks into either a laugh or a sob. It’s hard to tell which.
The intimate sound on the album presents an extraordinarily vulnerable version of James. For any limitations it has, James delivers powerful emotions through his voice that are not easy to achieve, and Uniform Clarity focuses on them in a way that Uniform Distortion did not.
So many of the songs deal with reconciling the past and the present, that it is hard not to see it as a repudiation of its predecessor, but James addresses this in the final two songs on the album which do not appear on Distortion. In the penultimate “It Will Work Out,” James acknowledges that “It’ll work out now/ not like you thought it would.” For once on the album, he looks forward.
In the album’s final song, “Flash in the Pan,” James makes a fully forward-looking turn with the album’s concluding lines: “But the sun is always peeping his head in the window again/ another chance.” Up until these lines, the clarity James promised remains elusive. He finally delivers it, not by virtue of an explanation, but by containment of the distortion.