"But what is most thrilling about Living in Extraordinary Times is that in deeper cuts like these... it captures plenty of the eccentricity and vivacity that has always been an earmark of James' most interesting - and best - work." Music Editor Alexia Kirov reviews James' fifteenth album, Living in Extraordinary Times, out now.
It’s been just over a decade since Manchester perennials James returned from hiatus with comeback album Hey Ma. Since then, they’ve done everything from an orchestra tour to almost beating Adele to reach number one, with their last offering, 2016’s Girl At The End of The World. Today sees the release of its follow up – the band’s fifteenth studio album – Living in Extraordinary Times.
For some bands over thirty years into their careers, the question looming over a new album might be whether the new material will match up to the hits that first made them famous. But with such recent success as well as a back-catalogue of chart-scaling singles, anticipation for Living In Extraordinary Times has been, naturally, very high. Luckily, fans won't be disappointed; this is the band's most accomplished LP in a decade.
The most notable development in the James sound in recent years has been the rising prominence of Mark Hunter's keyboards, from the electro buzz of 2014's 'Curse Curse' to the brooding synths of 2016's 'Dear John'.
This record continues that trend; from their gossamer contribution to 'Hope To Sleep' to the fairground swirling of the second half of 'Heads', keys are spread generously across Living in Extraordinary Times.
However, it's the presence afforded to percussion on this album that marks evolution in James' sound. The aforementioned 'Heads' begins with tramping drums which later burst into a flying gallop, in a way that recalls the only-ever-recorded live song 'Stutter'.
Then there's album opener 'Hank', already released on May's Better Than That EP. Its layers of thundering drums are a sonic fulmination to match singer Tim Booth's barbed lyrics, which condemn the Trump administration with its "white fascists in the White House".
Like 'Heads', which talks of fake news and scoffs at the so-called "Land of the free", 'Hank' is another song in which politics, and the titular "extraordinary times" that have unfolded since the band's last full-length release crop up in the lyrics.
But the album offers more than just commentary on current affairs; it offers healing for our troubled times, too, in the way of folky 'Many Faces'. Its chorus, "There's only one human race / Many faces / Everybody belongs here", are some of Booth's most simple and candid lyrics. They're not dissimilar in style to his most widely known: "Those who find themselves ridiculous / Sit down next to me" - both are direct messages of love and acceptance.
'Coming Home Pt. 2' is James making their own parallel with their back catalogue, to Gold Mother single 'Come Home'. Lyrically, it returns to the ground of 2008's 'Upside' - the toll that time spent on tour takes on family life; here, Booth focuses on filial relationships.
With an accompanying video to rival 'Moving On''s as their most affecting, 'Coming Home (Pt. 2)' is one of the moments on the album where the focus shifts from the political to the personal.
Anyone who found Girl at the End of the World's 'Nothing But Love' too saccharine will be pleased to hear the unabashed celebration "fucking love" that is 'Leviathan'. It may well be the golden moment of this release; it balloons into the most radiant chorus on the album - a clean version could make a brilliant single.
Fucking love / Before they drop the bomb / Make sure you get enough
Yet, in 'How Hard The Day', Booth also gives insight into the opposite side of the human condition, with lyrics that offer a brutal assessment of life, "Started with some crying / All ends with decay". A weaving, lone guitar riff guides the sombre lyrics, before being joined by keys, and, in the song's final moments, a delicate xylophone line, laden with pathos.
It's an example of one of the most enjoyable aspects of Living in Extraordinary Times; with the space that producer Charlie Andrew has created for small details like this, there's more depth to be discovered with each and every listen.
What is also pleasing about this record is that there's room for the full expanse of the force James are live to unfurl. 'Picture of this Place' opens with Jim Glennie's sultry bassline - his best on the album - and Booth's distorted vocals. Over six minutes, it ripens as the whole band join in, rising to a final, frantic flourish.
The vital, sprawling existential inquisition that is 'What's It All About?' really conveys a sense of the band's jamming writing process. There's a brilliant looseness to the track, as it shifts from section to section, that James have the mastery to manage without it ever coming across as uncontrolled or sloppy.
But what is most thrilling about Living in Extraordinary Times is that in deeper cuts like these, (as well as the idiosyncratic penultimate track, 'Mask') it captures plenty of the eccentricity and vivacity that has always been an earmark of James' most interesting - and best - work. It's what continues to make them, as Booth once sang on 'Boom Boom', "too unique to be cloned", and makes 2018 an extraordinary time for James.
Featured image: BMG / James
Living in Extraodinary Times is out now.