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.