Tim Booth lost his mother and a friend. His band's aesthetic betrays his grief. But it all somehow comes out alright.
James were once very serious about being original. In the liner notes for the Mancunian band's 1998 compilation James: The Best of, lead singer Tim Booth said of any song they wrote together in the early days, "If it sounded like any other band we'd throw it out." Since those early days, James has honed a style that sounds like no one else. With Booth's soaring voice, big clean guitars, trumpet, violin and vast songs with choruses wide enough to be heard from space, how could they sound like anyone else? And to put another rhetorical question to you, how long can a band like James get away with sounding Jamesque?
La Petite Mort, the band's first album in four years, is about death. No surprise there. The title translates to English as The Little Death and there's a Day of the Dead skull in profile on the cover. Tim Booth recently lost his mother and a close friend, giving the lyrics some extra weight, naturally. Sometimes the music goes along the same path and at other times it does not. La Petite Mort finds James at a crossroads, but it's not the kind of crossroads that presents new opportunities and game-changers. It's a crossroads that asks the band and its fans if the James formula really suits their every approach. Because for subject matter so introspective, there's not much subtlety to the music inside of La Petite Mort.
For instance, when I first heard "Gone Baby Gone", I really thought it was one of James's worst choruses and quite possibly one of their worst tunes. The brain dead chanting of the title over two chords sounded too stupid and the refrain of "Love love love love love... / Blah blah blah blah blah...." But when I listened to the song a few days later, I noticed these lines leading into the chorus: "You wanted freedom / But now that she's gone / There's no depth to the song / The song that you're singing." Did a band that formed in 1982, broke up in 2001, reformed six years later all while withstanding rude slagging from NME and other detractors, just pull a fast one on me? Post-reunion James has not been without its surprises. On La Petite Mort, experimentation is kept to a minimum as the band concentrates on swinging for the fences.
"In my hotel room / Sounds from next door / Someone's getting laid" goes the self-deprecating first line of the EDM-flavored "Curse Curse". The protagonist craves tequila, finding himself "Crazy as a wasp / On a window in a heatwave." This frivolity coats the album's first four songs and was a serious red flag during my first listen. Everything was, even in death, so banal or pedestrian. Over several plays, you get used to "Moving On"'s predictable builds, "Curse Curse's" saccharine nature and the alleged joke of "Gone Baby Gone". Opener "Walk Like You" was one that seemed to do a turnaround all its own, finding James doing a quite convincing impression of multi-movement pop in seven minutes and six seconds. The lyrics are Booth in an uncharacteristically punchy mood, directed toward a parent figure. "Which parent told you that you're slow? / My absent dad, my mum's control / Schooled me to be a worker drone." This troubled youth shakes it off with defiance by the end, declaring "We will not walk like you / Talk like you."
James return to that solid ground with the single "Frozen Britain". Death and coffins litter the lyrics, but it doesn't stop Booth from asking a woman named Emily to come to bed with him and to "make a boy out of me." Musically, Larry Gott, Glenn Bennie and the rest are cutting a little deeper by this point. Although they still traffic in the same chords within any given key, scale, the playing on "Frozen Britain" actually starts to crackle with some life. The highlight of La Petite Mort's second side, and possibly the highlight of the whole album, is wrenching power ballad called "All in My Mind". "Bring out your dead / Dead don't stay dead / They're sleeping." As soon as you can get the image of Eric Idle banging a pan in a muddy street in medieval times out of your head, the song's message of how the act of remembering departed loved ones helps keep them alive is a touching one. Also, Booth manages to sustain a rather high note for an impressive amount of time.
"Ride a wave, ride a wave from our birth to the grave." "Don't you know / We're already dead." "Suppress your love / Suppress desire / Compress a life / Till life expires." Booth's grief will not go quietly. His band doesn't feel like going quietly either. In order to write an album about death, it seems that James had to deploy only the oldest tricks from their bag. As I said before, 21st century James has had its share of fresh ideas. They found new ways to get to the drama and even paused along the way for some subtlety. You won't find such traits on La Petite Mort. And although it resulted in a good James album, something tells me that they probably won't be able to get away with this again.