James Come Home
R>E>M> aren’t the only group to come blazing back this week. The reformed James have just unleashed the first song from their new album Hey Ma. It’s called “Whiteboy” and by what I’m not sure is any kind of coincidence, it’s got that same sense of familiarly fuzzy urgency and murky momentum that renders Accelerate so magical. You can’t mistake “Whiteboy” for anybody but James (though, funnily enough, it opens with a “We’re back” guitar riff highly similar to Accelerate‘s opener “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”), complete with horns reminiscent of the Seven era, crunchy guitar riffs that sound like Eno’s still at the helm, and Tim Booth’s typically memorable lyrics. In fact, as I’ve stated on these pages before, Tim Booth may be my favorite lyricist of the last twenty years – nobody has written about spirituality and sexuality with the same poetic skill – and I’ll back that up with anyone who has the time to buy me dinner in the Catskills for the effort.
So, Hey Ma is out next week. It seems to have sneaked up on me. Was it really over a year ago that the group reformed and I wondered about going to see them in London on my birthday in late April? I guess so. Have they been busy in the interim? Looks like it. Have I heard anything else from Hey Ma? No, man; I’ve been busy in my little corner of the world, waiting for new music to be piped over the Internet for me. Now I see James are playing the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen next Monday night – a week to the day after R.E.M. played the Royal Albert Hall – and for a moment I wish I was again living in the Smoke and getting my VIP passes for all these concerts like I did back in the day. But then I’d be missing out on all those lovely school board meetings and the ski-bike-run triathlons and the supposed peace and quiet that allows me to finish a book. Am I rambling? Is it Friday? Cut me a break. Buy me a plane ticket. It’s my own ma’s birthday tomorrow and I wish I was there for her, especially as her friends are throwing her a surprise party that’s no longer a surprise ‘cos nobody can ever keep a secret in a northern English town. Hey ma, happy birthday! And my wife and toddler have both been sick with a flu-fever bug that’s brought down everyone in the Catskills but the skiers and snowboarders who build up resistance on those sub-freezing days on the mountains… (Hey, Campbell!)… Yesterday, Noel (Hey, Noel!) would not do anything but cling protectively to his mother’s chest, even when sleeping. This morning, I noticed that he was stinking. My wife talked about how his fever was shaking out the toxins. And then I just wondered off to my 2005 interview with Tim Booth and I find this:
Some days I think we’re divine, transcendent, and then other days I think we’re some kind of virus that is fucking up the planet and the earth will shake us off, have an eruption. Like when you get ill, your body will try and throw off this virus. What might that be that the planet throws off this virus that is destroying us?
As Booth sang on his solo song, “Monkey Bone,” Everything’s connected.
Truth be told, though I’ve seen James in concert many a time – even Campbell saw them twice before he was four years old! – the stage has never been their forte, as far as I’m concerned. But their best records just endure and endure and endure; I still often select Millionaires on the iPod when I’m heading out for a fast run and want the inspiration. And if you’re not sure of what I’m raving, visit their myspace page: following straight on from the new single “Whiteboy” is Millionaire’s opening song “Crash.” The rest of that album is/was equally excellent; as with Accelerate, you keep waiting for the bum track and it never arrives.Unfortunately, at the time Millionaires was released, James were no longer fashionable. Too prolific, too consistent, yet too experimental and not bothered enough with trends, they had reached the “planned obsolescence” point of the career arc. After another album, they recognized as much and broke up.
So, why not let sleeping bands lie? Why be excited that Booth got back with Larry, Saul, Jim and the others? Let’s look at it a different way. We’ve all endured R.E.M.’s artistic slide over the last decade, though few of us – certainly not myself – have come out and suggested they call it a day. And at the end of it all, it looks like, with Accelerate, they may have redeemed themselves. James took the opposite tack. Five years after breaking up because of all the usual issues that plague middle-aged bands, they realized that maybe all they had needed was a break. In the meantime, Tim Booth released a solo album, Bone, that was every bit as good as most of James’ work. It may have sold diddly squat, but it’s a better album than Around The Sun… My point being that, if a band takes a breather, then maybe it at least prevents them from releasing a bummer. I’m down with that.
…In the meantime, I’ve been re-listening to Seven, while re-reading that interview with Tim Booth I conducted from early 2005, after the release of Bone. The interview has served to remind me that Hey Ma! is – but of course! – a continuation of umpteen previous James/Booth titles, like the album Gold Mother and the Bone solo song “Eh, Mamma,” which suggests that Booth is still writing about the same subject matter, for better or for worse. Hopefully for better: as he says in the interview,
As an artist I would love to not be writing in some of the areas that I’ve obviously gone back to, but I can’t escape my own biology. And clearly those are the things with which I’m still wrestling. I look at a lyric and if a lyric has got energy, and if the energy is a truth … you can feel when a lyric’s dead and when a lyric’s alive. So if I’m still writing about the same thing but I look at a lyric and say, ‘it’s still alive,’ I can’t then go off and start again and try and write a completely different lyric for the song. It just doesn’t work like that for me.
Not blowing James’ trumpets of Jericho, but I think this interview with Tim Booth is probably the most intellectual, philosophical and ultimately rewarding conversation I may ever have conducted with someone who makes his living in the “entertainment industry” – and all the more remarkable for the fact that we conducted it by phone. If you have some time, make a cup of tea, listen to some James, and read along. Spare yourself the time. It’s Friday. And if you’ve got a copy of Hey Ma, please yousendit to me.