Ever since James made a big splash with 1993’s excellent, Brian Eno-produced Laid, their next great album has always remained just out of reach. Over the course of their next few full-lengths, James trained their listeners to expect solid releases. Well, the mediocre 1994’s Wah-Wah was more of a Laid leftovers collection, while the dark-toned Whiplash (1997) was actually a bit disappointing. 1999’s Millionaires and 2001’s Pleased to Meet You righted the course, but neither pushed beyond the borders of our anticipations. They were quite good, but not special.
After a seven-year hiatus (during which lead singer Tim Booth pursued an uneventful solo career), James is back with their tenth studio album. The break seems to have served them well, because Hey Ma bursts with hunger and enthusiasm. These are traits rarely found in bands that have been together for the better part of three decades. U2 haven’t possessed these qualities for ages, and R.E.M. only recently got theirs back. James certainly weren’t as badly in need of a comeback, although their long lapse had left them off the pop culture radar for what feels like an eternity. Since they’ve been gone, a new generation has risen, matured, stumbled, departed, and, in some cases, become the standard bearers for alt/indie music in the late 2000s.
Fortunately, James circumvent all trends and excel at simply being the best possible version of themselves. That means mostly major-keyed songwriting that nonetheless travels ambiguous and pensive moods during intros and verses, before the band explodes into euphoric choruses matched only by the aforementioned U2 and Coldplay (and, in both cases, only on their best works). While this may sound formulaic, actually listening to songs that follow this pattern — the glorious “Waterfall” and the exploding heartache of “Upside Down” — is a synaesthetic experience even for the visually uncreative. Cool colors wash over you, only to be out-flooded by thick waves of warm, enveloping tones.
James are wise enough to know that a good thing can become too much, though, and break up with the album with a few other moods. On “Oh My Heart”, the group put modern U2 to shame, with ringing guitar lines that search and surge, while Tim Booth emotes effortlessly across his wide vocal range. That song takes the energy level down a notch, but “Semaphore” is like downshifting into first gear. With a mournful, bugle-like trumpet call, echoing keyboard plinkings, and the slow ‘n’ steady plucking of electric guitar, Booth intones the tale of a romantic gulf that’s too wide to breach with words.
Lyrically, Booth takes hard looks at love and war. The latter is the focus of the title track, wherein the aftermath of Bush’s post-9/11 Middle East policy is summed up in the chorus, as Booth cries out: “Hey ma, the boys in body bags / Coming home in pieces”. In “72”, love is merely part of the psychological war that is life in a modern world filled with stock market freefalls, microwaves, lip rings, bling, and cancer. “I Wanna Go Home” the closes the album with elegiac tones that build and build into another triumphal chorus, carrying the title phrase from a meek wish to a passionate declaration of one person’s will to escape and renew.
This sense that all the world’s troubles can be overcome is at the heart of Hey Ma. Sometimes this is expressed lyrically, but, just as often, this capacity for change and rebirth is felt in the band’s mighty music. The words and sounds never bludgeon with optimism. Rather, they materialize around you while you listen, lifting you higher and higher until you’re floating along on a strong yet steady current. The pace may slow a little at times, but the turns are easy to take and the jagged rocks are few and far between. The excellent Hey Ma will see you through to journey’s end.