Their last two albums have found Manchester indie legends James enjoying something of a renaissance. This week they release their 15th record. 15? Surely we don’t need another James album, do we? You probably know the story by now, but just in case you don’t… A cult indie favourite back in the 1980s, they broke into the mainstream in the early 90s with the smash hit ‘Sit Down’ and their ‘Gold Mother’ album, going on to enjoy success through the decade. They split in 2001 after a lukewarm reception to their 9th album ‘Pleased To Meet You’, but thankfully, James were not done. They reunited in 2007, re-establishing themselves as a legendary live act, and releasing a number of critically acclaimed records, including 2016’s ‘Girl At The End Of The World’, which went to number 2 in the UK charts, held off the top spot only by Adele’s mega-selling ’25’.
But having formed back in 1982, and featuring members well into their 50s, how long can they keep up their reputation as British treasures? They can’t do it again, can they? Turns out they can; Living In Extraordinary Times is even better than the previous two records, and one of this treasured group’s finest albums.
With its big menacing drums, snarling bass, and heavy fuzz on the vocal, Hank is opened outwards by those distinctive, powerful horns that are used brilliantly here to create an air of optimistic defiance, and a sense of rising up. It sets out the backdrop of these extraordinary times that the album’s title refers to, times in which the most powerful country in the world is under the control of an arrogant, moronic billionaire, who already earned the title of Worst American President In History after just a few days in office. Clearly not a fantasy concept album, but a record about the state of this world we currently live in, and how we are treating each other as human beings. Once it all becomes clear, and you get to the core of this album, you realise how hard it can hit.
This is especially true of the glorious Many Faces, where the message is spelt loud and clear: “there’s only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here”. Set to acoustic guitar and mariachi-like horns before building itself up into a true anthem of unity and hope, it’s classic James. 28 years after Come Home, we get its grown-up sequel Coming Home, where Tim Booth in the role of proud father, continues to document his life through song. An arms aloft singalong combines with sequenced guitar effects, adding new layers to its solid surface. The stunning grace of Leviathan recalls the sparkling beauty of 2014’s Moving On, rising into another sweet, majestic chorus. Across this record, there are fascinating, maverick rhythmic ideas, and a wealth of sounds that are interesting yet always accessible. Their gift for creating superb arrangements is something they bring to the fore on this album, along with some terrific songwriting. It’s very evident on the thriving anger of Heads, where hectic percussion and a demented, disorientated vocal add to the madness. Make no mistake about it, this is the music of the times. And it’s taken a band approaching their fifth decade in music to deliver it.
Following on from the tender, sumptuous sadness of How Hard The Day, the lyric “I wanna fuck you until we break through to another dimensions” comes as a very unexpected opening line on the album’s grand, luminous title track, while Picture Of This Place digs into a contagious, no-nonsense groove, growing into a very Bowie-like climax. On first listen to the singles, you might think they’re not as special as some of their previous classics. The second time, the melodies and sounds will have a bit more clarity. The third time and something is beginning to take shape. After that, you may even become addicted. The superb single Better Than That is a fine example of this. With its busy off-kilter rhythms, big retro keyboards, and love-it-or-hate-it yodelled vocal melody during the bridge, its vibrancy is truly infectious. They seem to have become masters of “the grower”, especially in the cases of the lead singles. Over time, it’s been the embellishments and the steps sideward that have kept this band close to the hearts of so many devoted people. And the great songs of course.
Then there’s the little matter of Tim Booth’s captivating vocals. Indeed, there has always been something mystifying about Booth’s wondrous voice, which proves to be a most versatile instrument on the tranquil, ghostly Hope To Sleep. The breezily melancholic Mask is a song which comes topped with harmonious guitar loops and the most charming of analogue synth sounds, providing an elevating penultimate moment. Brimming with fury, passion and surging energy, the closing opus What It’s All About is quite simply an astonishing and powerful piece of music. Post-punk moods mix with an utterly flawless arrangement, eventually reaching a false ending that leads into a short, tenderly sung, folk-flavoured outro.
Even the four bonus tracks included on the deluxe edition are exemplary. Living proof that a band’s best work isn’t always from their younger days, and that age means experience, not being past your peak. Somehow, James just keeps on hitting the targets and confounding expectations.