James are a peculiar breed of band: emerging in tandem with The Smiths in the early 80s, creators of indie pop for the teenage bedroom-introspects, they have enjoyed a strange sort of oscillating success – fizzling out, before burning bright; all the way, or not at all. Yet regardless of their precarious foundations and tenuous beginnings, James have endured. That’s something not many bands can do. Over thirty years after their debut album ‘Stutter’ in 1986, James return with their fifteenth studio album ‘Living in Extraordinary Times’.
Taking strides away from the hits that encapsulated the time of their release, you would have to search quite hard for the vestiges of the rambling acoustic signatures of ‘Laid’, and the coruscating optimism of ‘Sit Down’. Though whispers of nostalgia can be heard in every track, the fact is James are not of a different time – they are moving with it.
‘Hank’, the opening track, sets the precedent for an album with magnitude. With a hail of drum beats, rousing in their solidarity and purpose, ‘Hank’ is given a pulse and a sense of being that is experimental, rather than predictable. The snarling bassline, patriotic brass section and grisly distorted vocals lead you by the hand into the underlying theme of the album: the nightmare of American politics that has become our reality. “Power’s out all over town,” Tim Booth snarls, “Jim Crow rules in the crackdown / Bend your knee stand your ground”. One could easily criticise Booth for adding to an already over-saturated narrative, yet his song writing is so nuanced, so sophisticated in its quips and wit, that it is instead refreshing.
James are also up to their elbows in synth. The likes of ‘Picture Of This Place’ and ‘Leviathan’ are an other-worldly cacophony, anchored by Booth’s uncannily adaptable voice. ‘Heads’ is a cautionary tale that is loomed over by Booth, with a neurotic instrumental similar to ‘Hank’ that feels like you’re tumbling head first down a political rabbit hole. It’s a sweet gasp for air to listen to the likes of ‘Mask’, that coruscates with an idyllic indie sound reminiscent of their former years. Solemnity is card James play masterfully: ‘How Hard The Day’ champions lonely guitar sections, and has a chorus that elicits hope in what otherwise is a deeply melancholy, introspective song.
One of the greatest joys of the album are the trimmings. Bonus track ‘Backwards Glances’ is a twinkling, solitary song that is beautiful as it lamenting. It’s the kind of song you sit quietly in your room and listen to, alone. The three demos, with their unpolished edges, are more pleasurable than the official tracks. Every layer, every instrument, is felt twofold despite their dissonance. ‘Living in Extraordinary Times’ is testimony that a band are not outdated due to their longevity; James move with the current, creating, as we can see here, music that captures the dichotomy of the past and something unheard of, something entirely unfamiliar.
Words by Sophie Walker.
Featured image: wearejames.com