To say these are extraordinary times is one hell of an understatement and on this, their 15th studio album, James are fully confronting this turbulent period. While not ostensibly about Donald Trump, his tangerine shadow casts a shade over much of the mood, though there are some piercing personal aspects too. 32 years after their debut Stutter, Tim Booth and the gang are proving that they still hold as much relevance as ever.
Beginning with the crackle and thunder of ‘Hank’, with its talk of: “White fascists in the White House…bend your knee, stand your ground” rumbles in with a militaristic drumbeat, Booth’s vocals drenched and stifled, perfectly suiting a world of anger and discord. Touching on the NRA, Black Lives Matter and attempts to suppress votes in the U.S. electoral system, it is a searing opening burst from a band who once had Margaret Thatcher in their sights but now find the world in as sorry a state as ever. After that global perspective, the album highlight ‘Coming Home (Pt. 2)’ brings matters much, much closer to home. A sequel of sorts to ‘Come Home’, it sees Booth address life as a father on the road. The lyrics throw an emotional light on a life led mainly away from family (“Missed you when you’re small, missed you when you call…how’d you get so tall?”) allied with one of their most soaring choruses in a back catalogue that is packed with them.
The rest of Living In Extraordinary Times continues in a similarly exciting vein. ‘Leviathan’ skates along on a skittering electro beat (the percussion throughout the album is phenomenal) before ‘Heads’ takes off for the heavens and beyond. Anyone who has ever seen James live will have the same image of Booth burned into their memories – the enigmatic singer, eyes closed, lost in music, arms swaying and stretching to the skies. This track is as close as it comes to a sonic version of that image, almost turning into a house track at the midway point. “Fake news divides to conquer” Booth warns, as a pounding beat kicks in. It is a stunning burst of energy from a band who refuse to sit still or stagnate, always carrying with them a sense of optimism that shines through.
Maybe it is these extraordinary times that we are existing in that have energised the band, but it feels like a record that could easily slot in amongst their finest. Though the second half of the album does drift off a little, it returns to form with the closing duo of ‘Mask’ and ‘What’s It All About’. The latter snakes in on a hypnotic rhythm, a perfect triumvirate of vocals, lyrics and sound from a band always seeking the new rather than re-treading the old. There are enough bands and artists out there who only rehash their heritage, but James continue to stand nearly alone as a group who embrace the past but keep moving forwards.