Tim Booth: Bone

John Davidson

The return of former James front-man, Tim Booth, finds him with much to say, working to the bone...

Tim Booth


Label: Koch
US Release Date: 2005-01-25
UK Release Date: 2004-06-07
Amazon affiliate

What do you do next when you've been writing songs and performing with a band for 20 years and suddenly decide it's time to stop? In the case of Tim Booth, presently solo artist and formerly front-man of James, you take time out with your family, write a screenplay, pursue theatrical interests (James were first formed when Booth was a student of drama at Manchester University in 1982) and allow your alter-ego to drift away, as if on a barge along a river, out into the sea.

In other words, you take a break.

But after 20 years, writing songs isn't simply a job, it's a vocation. You don't suddenly stop, just like a river doesn't suddenly one day run dry. The impulse to write remains, and it's this urge that has been responsible for any number of utterly mediocre albums from many fine artists. Craft takes the place of inspiration for the seasoned artist, so that the records we end up with are seldom un-listenable, yet rarely compelling either. At best, there's a brief resurgence, a flicker of revitalized creativity, but often the only people still listening by then are the true faithful (there are any number of easy examples of this career curve; Elvis Costello and Paul Weller spring quickly to mind). It is this prospect, this difficulty that Tim Booth is facing with his new solo album, Bone .

In truth, it's perhaps something Booth had already faced up to with James. For almost the entire first half of their career, James had fostered upon them a calling card of sorts -- Morrissey's claim (made when The Smiths first rose to prominence), that these fellow Mancunian candidates were his favorite band. This line blighted James as much as it helped them, and they were often unfairly compared with The Smiths afterwards. When The Smiths made it big in America, Morrissey and Co. were for a time, cited as the UK's equivalent of REM, the two respective kings of their nation's indie scenes. The irony was that The Smiths were never similar to REM in anything but stature. If anything, James were a better comparison with the Athens, Georgia band, both for the issues that concerned them, and for the broader, more experimental range of their interests.

James' later releases, such as 1999's Millionaires , lacked the verve and wit of their best, most inspired work, Gold Mother (1990), Laid (1993), and Whiplash (1997). Although Booth is too intelligent a writer to make an entirely dull record, by the end of James' career the band's playfulness was beginning to come across as triteness, and his intellectual concerns as mere proselytizing. James sounded like a band who'd said everything they had to say, and when they called it quits they seemed to acknowledge as much, choosing to leave with their dignity intact.

Bone feels like an album that could easily have followed Whiplash . It finds Booth free of the compromise necessitated by being part of a band, while also suggesting his own limitations as a song-writer. It's a record on which he has much to say, with his themes remaining broad and wide-ranging, yet somehow still the same as ever. Always there are issues both personal and intimate (the nature of love and lust, happiness and sorrow) as well as questions extending to a more global reach (politics, the environment). Most often, Booth's songs extend even beyond those parameters (spirituality, religion, and the nature of belief) so that taken together his compositions are about the search for meaning, about what it means to be human. Strange then that they should take the form of pop songs.

Bone is not always instantly pleasing, but like most records of weight or merit, it grows better with repeated listens. There's a sly inventiveness to some of the music (the funky, tribal percussion of the title track; the intro to "Monkey God"), and at its best the music retains an ability to surprise (as on the hard, ripping guitar outro of "Love Hard"). Still, at times the album buckles beneath the weight of big statements and earnest emotion of Booth's tendency to write large.

"Discover" is a case in point. It's mostly a poignant and honest portrayal of a man acknowledging his failings, "I may look like a man / And talk like a man / But I feel like a man undercover," yet it treads a thin line which borders on sentimentality. It also crosses the line of importunity, "So I've been abuser and I've been abused / I've been the Nazi and I've been the Jew." In interviews Booth has defended this line, though admittedly with some discomfort. That his present relationship is with a Jew is neither here nor there. As a metaphor it is both inappropriate and inadequate. There can be no correlation between the literal slaughter of human beings and the metaphorical destruction of another person.

For all of that, Booth remains an honest writer, regardless of personal cost. Brian Eno produced two albums for James, and Eno is hardly one to invest time in any artist who doesn't display an aptitude for intelligent music. This latest album from Tim Booth is unlikely to create a vast new audience for him, but those already familiar with his work are bound to discover much they recognize and admire.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.