I wish to register a complaint. This is not about a dead parrot but concerning the passage of time. It is moving far too quickly, and I’m unhappy. How on earth can it be that the band James has been around for 40 years? C’est impossible. I demand a recount, at least!
James produced some notable and instantly recognisable hits from humble beginnings in Whalley Range, Manchester (I don’t know if they lived in a rented room) in 1982. Nineteen Top 40 singles and fourteen Top 20 albums are not bad. After all, you would not be surprised if the band needed to challenge itself, to do something against the grain. James has done just that with Be Opened By The Wonderful.
James has teamed up with a 22-piece orchestra and eight-piece choir for this album, reimagining nineteen of the previously recorded tracks and a brand new one. It is an alternative version of a greatest hits album – though there are several lesser-known tracks here too. As vocalist and songwriter Tim Booth explains, “Life begins at 40. For our midlife euphoria, we recorded a double orchestral album of some of our deepest cuts.”
Working with an orchestra or choir is not something new. Many artists have done this over the years. However, it allows James to find a new sound that works well. For the benefit of this review, I will only be taking these twenty tracks on their merits as they appear on Be Opened By The Wonderful. I won’t compare them to the original recordings; I will treat them as an album of brand-new songs – as they are. Although James has played some of these tracks on previous orchestral shows, it is the first time they have been recorded for release.
The album starts with ‘Sometimes’, and I put it on repeat immediately after the first listen. It is one of the most stunning tracks I have heard in a while. It is six minutes of pure beauty. It is a melancholy song, and Booth’s vocals wash over the top with such drama and emotion. I do not think I have heard him sound so good. Swirling strings build up and dance around, stirring my feelings. We crescendo into drums and a choral monsoon. “Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul”, Booth croons. When listening to this track, he sees into my soul, touches my heart and stokes my emotions. What an opener. I need a moment to calm myself.
Of course, this leaves me wondering where they go from here. I want to hear more but worry that nothing will compare to that opening track. ‘Love Make A Fool’ follows, a song never previously released in any format. My first reaction is this would make a good movie theme. It has a power to it that would work beautifully over the rolling credits of a blockbuster. “Love makes a fool out of me/Take me home kiss my wounds give me something to eat/Always a price, but it’s free”, Booth sings over a dramatic wall of sound.
‘We’re Gonna Miss You’ sees Booth cast a protective spell on himself, shielding him from harm as he does his best Leonard Cohen impression. ‘Tomorrow’ tackles the issue of being unable to choose who you love or control who loves you. David Baynton-Power provides some top-drawer drumming on this one.
Dipping their toes into the Israel/Palestine conflict, ‘The Lake’ has a dreamy eeriness. You feel like you are in a dream world but with a sinister undertone that keeps you uneasy. ‘She’s A Star’ has a 50s/60s feel. Think late Buddy Holly mixed with The Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper’s pomp. In a song about a woman finding and releasing her innermost power, Booth shows us his vocal range. “She’s been in disguise forever/She’s tried to disguise her stellar views/Much brighter than all this static/Now she’s coming through”, Booth puts himself in the position of the female protagonist and explores her inner voice and strength. The strings bring a great dimension to the song, creating a feeling like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon.
‘Lookaway’ keeps the melancholy up front and centre. “I pretend that I know where I’m going/I pretend I know where I came from/Or the fear will engulf me completely/I chose to waltz this bridge of sighs”, emotes Booth as he tells us a tale of lacking self-awareness and being lost in a big and ever increasingly complex world.
‘Sit Down’ is a stripped-down song with Booth’s vocals enveloped with stunning strings. The song sees Booth thank two women who had greatly influenced him – singer Patti Smith and author Doris Lessing. A largely sparse arrangement like this leaves little hiding place for his voice. Good job, he nails it. ‘Alaskan Pipeline’ continues the theme of less is more. A sparse ballad, it is most notable for the music. It creates a feeling that gnaws at you, slowly bringing you to a place where you feel like crying. I don’t mind the addition of lyrics, but I would have preferred this to be an instrumental.
‘Someone’s Got It In For Me’ sees Tim go full Morrissey and treats us to some serious bedsit angst. “What a state I’m in/My self-pitying/Here’s another victim singing suffering“, he wails. Musically, the song reminds me a little of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘The Power of Love’. His voice sounds like a raspy version of Holly Johnson. It’s not a bad thing, and the song benefits from it.
I always enjoy songs where the lyrics and music don’t match. ‘Hey Ma’ does this perfectly. “Hey ma, the boys in body bags/Coming home in pieces”, sings Booth, almost like a football chant, over an upbeat and jaunty melody. The song explores the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the immediate and kneejerk consequences – troops heading into Afghanistan and Iraq and burning human rights in the name of security. It is a track that leaps out at you and gets you singing along to the chorus before you realise you enjoy it too much, considering the subject matter. Any song that can pull you in and then bring you to a shuddering halt gets the thumbs up from me.
‘Hello’ is a gentle song with ethereal vocals followed by ‘Beautiful Beaches’. Another gentle song tells the tale of a family fleeing forest fires surrounding their homes and heading to the coast. Tackling the 1980s Cold War tensions, ‘Why So Close’ highlights the ‘Us vs Them’ mentality that dominated the lives of many. An a cappella song; it is a nice change of pace. “One false move and we all fall down/No funeral games, no such fun”, chant the choir – the reality of living in the 80s. I think I will watch Threads later and relive the terror.
‘Medieval’ sees a military march pounded out on drums throughout the track. Again, it’s a catchy tune with unpleasant lyrics hidden in plain sight. “Set them marching, stop them thinking/Psyche them up with your will/Stir them up with frantic rhythm/Send them out to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill”, Booth bellows with an evil snarl.
‘Hymn From A Village’ takes a swipe at the lacklustre songwriters of the world. “This songs made up, made second rate/Cosmetic music, powderpuff/Pop tunes, false rhymes, all lightweight bluffs/Second-hand ideas, no soul, no hate”, spits Booth à la Jim ‘Jimbob’ Morrison of Carter USM fame. It’s a great song, but the orchestral aspect detracts from it a little. It’s a noisy, angry punk feeling track which wants shouty guitars and even shoutier vocals. Drums and guitars were all that are needed here, especially when they sound this good.
A tale of a damaged friendship, ‘Say Something’ heads back to more familiar ground. Written when Booth and former James guitarist Larry Gott were barely on speaking terms, the song throws buckets of despair at you. It comes from a place of not understanding what’s gone wrong, struggling to comprehend why this huge void has appeared in your life, and not knowing how to fix it.
‘Top Of The World’ sees the protagonist struggling to balance their Life. “If I will not be faithful/I must accept betrayal/When your turn comes to leave me/Will my freeways have failed?” A song about loss, specifically concerning the death of Booth’s mother, ‘Moving On’ builds slowly. You begin to feel your heart beat a little more. Your breathing starts to become heavier. The eyes start to fill. This song takes you to a place where your experiences of loss float to the surface and take over. The album’s finale, ‘Laid’, sees Booth examining the relationships of those around him. His voice soars high and merges with the strings, flying high like a leaf a breeze whilst a gentle guitar strums below—an excellent way to end.
Be Opened By The Wonderful is James’ 17th studio album and will likely be popular with many fans of the band – they are a die-hard bunch. What is more interesting is how other people will react to it. It has the potential to snare new fans and gain interest from those more interested in orchestral music than contemporary rock and pop.
The band have certainly hit a sweet spot here, making some exquisite music. It could easily be perceived as a band having a mid-life crisis and being a bunch of pretentious wankers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Seek out this album, listen to it a few times and let it absorb into your soul. If I can’t convince you to do that, then at least listen to ‘Sometimes’ with the volume up high.