Can we all finally agree that James is one of the best post-1960s bands that the UK has produced? They’ve certainly built a convincing argument over the span of 35 years and 15 albums, their latest being the provocative and triumphant Living in Extraordinary Times. Few bands can claim to be making music this vital and exciting this far along in their careers.
Really, the only band that merits comparison is U2, as both have conquered the passions of their youth and the weight of aging with grace (and a dash of piss and vinegar). If James hasn’t filled quite as many stadiums (and on the world stage, they’re pretty close despite longtime indifference among American audiences), they’ve built just as impressive and complex a body of work.
James has outlasted faddish shifts in taste and trends, weathered changes in personnel, and bounced back from a seven-year hiatus that saw them return hungrier and more committed to their collaborative artistic vision. Since returning to recording and touring in 2007, James has remained a fairly stable collective. The current iteration features founders Tim Booth (vocals) and Jim Glennie (bass) with longtime members David Baynton-Power (drums), Saul Davies (rhythm guitar), Mark Hunter (keyboards), Andy Diagram (horns), and as he did in the late ’90s, Adrian Oxaal has once again replaced Larry Gott on lead guitar.
The biting, angry lead single, “Hank”, is going to get a lot of attention for its anti-Trump posturing but the album’s dominant theme is in keeping with James’ stubborn, neo-hippie optimism. Love will conquer all, and if love falls a little short, well then, good sex is a good, life-affirming distraction from the darkness surrounding us.
James’ 2007 return found them embracing bold political statements where, before the hiatus, such messages were less direct. Living in Extraordinary Times features their most direct, bile-filled observations of current times. Booth sings of “White fascists in the White House” in “Hank” and warns that “I’m in the story business / This tower falls without a sound / Only our carbon footprint / Suggests an empire here unwound.” It’s an indictment of American power politics that began with James’ previous release, Girl at the End of the World, and its video single “To My Surprise”. “Heads” tales a similar stance, with Booth taunting “Fake news divides to conceal / History’s rich get to keep what they steal.”
But, as noted, Booth and James are not prone to wallowing in the muck for too long; there’s always love (or sex) to raise us up, even at the times of our deepest anxieties. “There’s only love that’s strong enough / To rescue us from self-destruct,” Booth sings on “Many Faces” before leading into the stadium-worthy coda “There’s only one human race / Many faces / Everybody belongs here.” And both “Extraordinary Times” and “Leviathan” offer the pleasures of the flesh as transcendent, rising above the worries of mind. “I want to fuck you,” Booth sings in the former, “until we break through into other dimensions” while “Leviathan” counsels with a useful aphorism: “Fucking Love / Before they drop the bomb make sure we get enough.”
Living in Extraordinary Times is an extraordinary album that finds James firing on all cylinders. Booth sings with confidence and vigor, the band providing both slippery grooves and explosive crescendos as second nature. Of particular note is Glennie and Baynton-Power’s continued strength as a sonic unit. They are a criminally underappreciated rhythm section, having anchored all of the classic James releases and theirs is an intuitive and unobtrusive foundation that, if removed, would render all else to rubble. James in 2018 is alive and well and coming for your children.