How Big How Blue How Beautiful
The giddy, impetuous, driven James have always been very, very much a band of two halves.
The Manchester veterans have two musical modes: soaring, jubilant, insatiable anthems such as their signature tunes Come Down and Sit Home, which are utterly irresistible and life-affirming at their live shows, and more morose, downbeat and pensive ballads, heavy with self-doubt and mortality.
La Petite Mort, their 12th studio album and yet their first one for six years, kicks off as if it belongs firmly in the first camp. The characteristically flamboyant opener Walk Like You, a musing on the psychological havoc wrought by clumsy parents on their children, is so infectiously kinetic that it switches from guitars to Italian-house piano to express its sheer exuberance.
The following, similarly visceral Curse Curse features perhaps the quintessential Tim Booth lyric – ‘I think too much, don’t get me excited’ – and Andy Diagram’s spiralling trumpet flourishes, always the hallmark of James at their most joyous. Thereafter, however, they abandon such expansiveness for more introspective ruminations.
The music turns inwards and the words follow. Former single Frozen Britain is lusty and vigorous, with Booth sounding like The Cure’s Robert Smith as he whoops “Emily, come to bed!” over thrusting bass, but the second half of the album is James at their most morose and maudlin. Interrogation plods and treads water as it flagellates ‘liars and self-deceit’; the stripped-down, skeletal Bitter Virtue chases its tail nowhere much.
“I love you, see you next time,” trills Booth as final track, All I’m Saying, tumbles to a close. This time around, they are most likely preaching to the converted, not attracting fresh devotees – but even after nearly 30 years, the idiosyncratic, quixotic James are always worth persevering with.