James: La Petite Mort pour toujours
My favorite lyricist is indelibly associated with Manchester, though he doesn’t originally hail from there. His name is Tim Booth and time and time again, over the quarter century-plus that I have followed him and the band that he fronts, James, he has astounded me with his insight into life’s big issues, and his ability to frame them in such a personal, poetic and yet equally opaque manner.
The new James album, La Petite Mort, is no exception, and having lived with it for a few weeks now, I can put hand on heart and declare it my favourite album of 2014 thus far. On some other levels though, it IS a departure for James, because while Tim has always written about the spiritual, this is the first album on which he’s confronted a different kind of departure – death – in such detail.
Those who follow James will know that on 2010’s The Morning After The Night Before, Tim wrote about putting his mother in a home, but from the perspective of the mother. (When he played her the completed song, he recounted at a James concert in Boston that year, she listened intently, paused, and eventually said, “It’s no ‘Sit Down’.”) His mother subsequently passed away, with Tim at her side, around the same time that he lost his best friend, and La Petite Mort openly confronts these losses.
The album is not, I should stress, without self-effacement (‘Walk Like You,’ the opening diatribe against parental conditioning includes the admission “Dad’s off on tour or in a meeting”) and double-entendre applicable to the album’s title, La Petite Mort being the French term for an orgasm. (Knowing as much, and reading its preceding verse, the line in ‘Curse Curse,’ that “Messi shoots and scores, a hundred thousand came” is not specifically about attendance.) Nor is it without the usual grandiose and uplifting melodies that have long secured James such a special place in my heart: ‘Moving On,’ the spectacular video to which you can see below, pushes all the right buttons musically as much as lyrically, especially for a song that deals with our demise.
‘Moving On’ asks, “When this cycle ends, will it start again, will we recognize old friends?” and as La Petite Mort winds to its conclusion with a deathly trilogy, Tim appears to answer his own question. The album’s final words, on ‘All I’m Saying,’ are “See you next time.”
Tim’s apparent confidence about an after-life prompted me to revisit my iJamming! interview with him from 2005, on the back of his first truly solo album, Bone. We had a particularly entertaining, lengthy, detailed and mildly combative conversation over the phone, during which Tim came close to admitting that his own spiritual philosophy is one of intelligent design, and did confess to various experiences with past life regression.
I envy Tim his optimism. But either way, I wish to thank him once more for his words of comfort and poetry. It’s probably just an age thing, but Booth has constantly written about the issues applicable to my own life, at exactly the time I’ve been going through them. The last year or so has been tough for me, as after something of a charmed period, I have lost one friend after another way before their time – three of them to brain cancer in their 40s, another via a fall down the stairs – while steadily and regularly forced to confront the departure of friends and neighbors in their 70s and 80s, too many of them to cancerous illnesses that made their death less peaceful than I feel it ought to be. I write this on the day that an elderly uncle (not by birth) is having his funeral in London, which, like too many funerals of late, I can not attend because I made a decision to live in a different country than the one I grew up in – a decision that I will inevitably have to confront as my own mother, in relatively good health but 80 now and living alone, grows steadily older.
Faced with so many losses, my own health issues – a compounding number of sports-related injuries that have stuck around way longer than they used to, forcing me to cancel one spring competition after another – are minor to the extreme, but along with other signs of age, such as rapidly failing eyesight, hairs sprouting out of the ears, and the occasional mole on the chest, they serve as nature’s firm reminder that I’m now the far side of fifty, and certainly in the latter half of my own life.
So thank you, Tim, for continuing to embrace the unconscious. And thank you, James, for continuing to deliver in the present.